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In bid to boost transparency, bioRxiv begins posting peer reviews next to preprints

BioRxiv, the server for life sciences preprints, has begun an experiment that allows select journals and independent peer-review services to publicly post evaluations of its papers should the authors make the request.

The idea is to make the peer-review process more transparent, and help authors more easily strengthen their manuscripts before they are submitted to journals. But some authors might balk at making critical reviews of their work available for anyone to read.

The experiment, called Transparent Review in Preprints, launched last week. To run it, bioRxiv has teamed with two publishers and two independent services that are providing peer reviews. In addition to increasing the transparency and usefulness of bioRxiv’s preprints, the initiative is also a platform to test models of “portable” peer reviews, or independent reviews that authors can share with any journal considering their work. (Traditionally, reviews are arranged and reviewed only by the journal considering a particular submission, not a third party.)

One of the independent peer-review services, Review Commons, to debut in December, plans a related service in which 17 life sciences journals have agreed to rely on peer reviews it arranges, and seek just “minimal” additional outside expert advice, when deciding whether to publish a manuscript. That strategy could shorten what many scientists complain is many months spent resubmitting a rejected manuscript to multiple journals until one accepts it. And it might also reduce some of the millions of hours that reviewers spend annually reading manuscripts, participants say.

Other journals and publishing platforms already post peer reviews, and a handful of independent services have provided reviews for a fee. But few authors and journals have embraced either practice. (BioRxiv already allows readers to comment directly on preprints, but only about 10% of preprints have drawn any comments, which the server’s personnel minimally moderate.)

The new efforts may enjoy better success because Review Commons is backed by foundation funding, meaning it won’t rely completely on authors or journals for operating funds, says Tim Vines, a publishing consultant to a data-sharing tool called DataSeer. Vines led an independent peer-review service, Axios Review, that went out of business in 2017. He blames the service’s failure, in part, on a reluctance of authors to pay the fee of $250 per paper that it charged. In contrast, Review Commons will offer its service for free.

BioRxiv has enjoyed growing visibility, attracting more than 20,000 preprints in 2018. But it may face a tougher road persuading many authors to have peer reviews posted along with their preprints, Vines says. Review Commons will allow authors to decide whether to post the reviews on bioRxiv, but if they opt in, all the reviews must be published, including any unfavorable evaluations. The service will allow authors to include a response and revisions.

“My feeling is that authors prefer to deal with reviewer comments in private rather than having their academic dirty laundry washed in public,” Vines says.

In Transparent Review in Preprints’s first week of operation, authors allowed the posting of a handful of reviews, says Richard Sever, co-founder of bioRxiv, based at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

As Sever sees it, one benefit of the approach is that although 70% of bioRxiv preprints are eventually published in journals, those publications rarely include referee reports. But in this system, he says, readers will be able to see every step in the process, including the original manuscript, the comments, and a link to the revised, published version. What’s more, even preprints never published in journals might also have evaluations posted on bioRxiv.

Review Commons will be run by EMBO Press, a publisher in Heidelberg, Germany, in concert with ASAPBio, a nonprofit in San Francisco, California, that promotes innovation in scholarly publishing. The effort has secured 1 year of funding from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Anyone can submit manuscripts, and reviews will be free for authors and journals—however, Review Commons will only review well-developed research papers that offer “a clear advance for the field,” says Thomas Lemberger of EMBO.

Authors can then request Review Commons to share the manuscript and reviews with one of its 17 journal partners. The service will reveal the reviewers’ identities to the partners but mask them when posted to bioRxiv. Review Commons will also transfer evaluations to additional journals if authors request and referees give permission.

EMBO Press already posts anonymous reviewer comments with papers published in its four journals—which are among the 17—and links them to the bioRxiv versions.

BioRxiv’s partners also include eLife, an open-access journal in Cambridge, U.K., and Peerage of Science, a commercial review service based in Finland that charges publishers and other users, not authors, for its reviews.

Some advocates for open access in scientific publishing want these experiments to become the norm. They envision a system in which most manuscripts would be published first as free-to-read online preprints, with a yet-to-evolve ecosystem of peer-review services and journals vetting and curating them later.

Sever says bioRxiv is agnostic about the particular pathways and models that might lead to that future. “There does seem to be a rising chorus about more transparent review and trying to rethink and improve the way we do peer review,” he says. “We want to be an enabling platform for others to collaborate with us to achieve their goals.”