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Bringing 'trust but verify' model to journal peer review

Incentives identified that could encourage journals to "open the black box of peer review" for the sake of improving transparency, reproducibility and trust in published research.

Academic journals are increasingly asking authors to use transparent reporting practices to "trust but verify" that outcomes are not being reported in a biased way and to enable other researchers to reproduce the results.

To implement these reporting practices, most journals rely on the process of peer review — in which other scholars review research findings before publication — but relatively few journals measure the quality and effectiveness of the process.

In a commentary published July 20 in the journal Science, lead author Carole Lee and co-author David Moher identify incentives that could encourage journals to "open the black box of peer review" for the sake of improving transparency, reproducibility and trust in published research. Lee is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Washington; Moher is a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and associate professor at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.

Lee and Moher see this as a collective action problem requiring leadership and investment by publishers.

"Science would be better off if journals allowed for and participated in the empirical study and quality assurance of their peer-review processes," they wrote. "However, doing so is resource intensive and comes at considerable risk for individual journals in the form of unfavorable evidence and bad press."

To help journals manage the reputational risk associated with auditing their own peer review processes, Lee and Moher suggested revising the "Transparency & Openness" (TOP) guidelines, a set of voluntary reporting standards to which 2,900 journals and organizations are now signatories. These guidelines were published in Science in 2015 by a committee of researchers and representatives from nonprofit scientific organizations, grant agencies, philanthropic organizations and elite journals.

Lee and Moher suggested adding a new category to the TOP guidelines "indicating a journal's willingness to facilitate meta-research on the effectiveness of its own peer-review practices." Higher levels of transparency would involve higher risk, and journals can choose which tier or level they take on:

1. For the lowest tier, journals would publicly disclose whether they are conducting internal evaluations of peer review in which they are able to retain the study results for internal use.

2. At the middle tier, journals would disclose the results of their internal evaluations of peer review but could maintain flexibility in how they report their results for external use. For example, results could be aggregated across several journals to reduce the risk to any single journal.

3. At the upper tier, journals could agree to relinquish data and analyses to researchers outside their institution for third-party verification. This is an option, Lee and Moher wrote, "that might appeal especially to publishers with fewer resources, as it places the financial burden on those conducting the meta-research." Journals conducting their own analyses could preregister their study designs and then deposit their data publicly online.

By agreeing to these more stringent guidelines, Lee and Moher said, publishers and journals would have the chance to legitimize and advertise the relative quality of their peer-review process in an age when predatory journals, which falsely claim to use peer review, continue to proliferate.

"Illegitimate journals are becoming a big problem for science," Moher said. "True scientific journals can distinguish themselves with transparency about their peer-review processes."

Investing in research on journal peer review will be costly, they said, suggesting suggest that large experimental studies are needed to judge the effectiveness of different web-based peer-review templates to enforce reporting standards and of ways authors, reviewers and editors might be trained to use such tools and evaluate research.

Also needed are ways to detect shortcomings in statistical and methodological reporting on a research paper, they said, and to understand how the number and relative expertise of peer reviewers can improve assessment.

The largest publishers, whose profit margins compete with those of pharmaceutical and tech giants, can afford to invest in the requisite technology and resources needed to carry out these audits, the researchers said.

"Publishers should invest in their own brands and reputations by investing in the quality of their peer-review processes," Lee said. "Ultimately, this would improve the quality of the published scientific literature."

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