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Online Social Network Seeks to Overhaul Peer Review in Scientific Publishing

Three Finnish researchers have created an online service that could eventually replace or supplement the current way journals get scientists to peer review submitted manuscripts. Already partnered with the ecology journal Ecography, published by Wiley, Peerage of Science is an innovative social network of scientists to which researchers submit their manuscripts; other members with relevant expertise, alerted by keywords in the papers, will then provide reviews that scientific journals can use to decide whether to publish the work. University of Jyväskylä and the University of Eastern Finland, where the three creators of the service are based, have sponsored the company founded to further build up the service this year.

The current peer review system in which journal editors send potentially publishable manuscripts to experts for review is hotly debated. Many scientists complain that the system is slow, inefficient, of variable quality, and prone to favoritism. Moreover, there's growing resentment in some quarters about being asked to take valuable time to provide free reviews to journals that are operated by for-profit publishers or that don't make their papers open-access. Several suggestions have been made to improve the peer review system, such as introducing credits for reviewers, using social media, and making the process more transparent.

Peerage of Science aims to combine these ideas, explains co-founder Mikko Mönkkönen, an applied ecologist at the University of Jyväskylä. A researcher would initially upload a manuscript to Peerage of Science. It will then be made anonymous and posted on a Web site that is exclusively accessible to other members, which currently stands at around 500 scientists. Along with the manuscript, the authors can add a short pitch explaining why peers should review this manuscript.

Potential reviewers receive an e-mail if tagged keywords reflecting the manuscript match their expertise—bird migration, for example. After reviewing a paper, peers are allowed to grade the quality of the other reviews, by awarding a grade between one and five.  Editors of journals partnering with Peerage of Science can anonymously track reviews, get automated updates on the paper and make an offer to publish the paper, perhaps after a requested revision. Authors are free to accept or decline their offers.

Scientists receive one credit for every review they finish. These credits are required to upload a manuscript, which costs two credits divided by the number of coauthors. The author who uploads a manuscript is also obliged to have a positive balance. "This formalises an unwritten rule: he who wants his manuscripts reviewed, reviews other manuscripts in return," explains Janne-Tuomas Seppänen, a postdoc at University of Jyväskylä, who came up with the initial idea for Peerage of Science service in February 2010.

To prevent favoritism, peers are not allowed to review manuscripts submitted by colleagues of the same university or researchers they cooperated with in the last 3 years. This excludes many potentially suitable reviewers, however, so the service founders will monitor if this rule is needed. "We want to create a system that people can trust. But if this rule turns out to be too strict, we are willing to change it," says Mönkkönen.

Transparency is another way Peerage of Science aims to prevent bias. If reviewers agree, their reviews will be published in an online journal called Proceedings of Peerage of Science. The founders hope this will create a career incentive for scientists to do high-quality reviews: they can boost their reputation. "One cannot just get away with an unrealistically positive or negative review without justification," says Seppänen:

It is this incentive that Carsten Rahbek, editor-in-chief of Ecography, liked most about the concept. "Due to an explosion in the number of submitted papers, we have major problems finding people to review, and the quality has gone down as well," he says

Peerage of Science currently offers free trials to selected journals. In a later stage, publishers will have to pay a fee. This fee will vary, but the founders calculated it will be lower than the costs publishers make arranging and coordinating the current peer review system. Since November, eight manuscripts have been uploaded and four have received reviews.  One paper didn't receive a review by the website's deadline. That's "a sign for the authors to improve their manuscript," suggests Seppänen. Rahbek has so far encountered one article in his field of interest. He decided not to publish it, "but I liked the procedure and the quality of the reviews."

The founders of Peerage of Science, who include evolutionary ecologist Janne Kotiaho of University of Jyväskylä, initially aimed their service at their own field, ecology. But their goal is to eventually expand it to all scientific areas. They say they are negotiating with publishers and editors of several top journals. Some chief editors are eager to start using the service, says Mönkkönen, but most are hesitant. "I have experienced that the scientific community is rather conservative and reluctant to change. Most editors first want to know if the service works and let others do the pioneering." he says.

It is a bit of catch-22: Until many journals start participating, scientists might hesitate to actively use the service. And journals might hesitate to turn to Peerage of Science if not enough scientists have joined. "It all comes down to the quality of the uploaded manuscripts," says Rahbek.

* Details on how journals deal with uploaded papers and how many manuscripts have been uploaded so far are corrected in this version.