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Interactive peer review enhances journal quality

In all the talk of journals pricing and reducing the turnaround of the peer review process, the issue of quality can get overlooked. Ulrich Pöschl describes an open-access journal that is seeking to redress the balance

There are many good reasons for providing open access to scientific publications (economic, educational, and scientific aspects). Some of the most important advantages of free online availability of scientific information are the opportunities for enhanced scientific quality assurance. Unfortunately, these issues are often neglected in discussions and reports about open-access publishing.

The traditional methods of scholarly publishing and peer review do not live up to the needs of efficient communication and quality assurance in today's rapidly developing and highly diverse world of science. A large proportion of scientific publications are careless, useless, or false. Furthermore, they inhibit scholarly communication and scientific progress. This view may sound provocative but unfortunately it is not exaggerated (Pöschl, 2004a,b; and references therein).

Scientific publishing faces a dilemma between two important and conflicting needs, which the traditional ways of journal publishing and peer review cannot reconcile. These are rapid publication and dissemination versus thorough review and discussion of novel ideas and results.

Rapid publication is required for the efficient exchange of new findings, and it is widely pursued in current scientific publishing. Most successful scientific journals in physics, chemistry, and life sciences push for very short peer review times (2-4 weeks), and short papers with a lack of detailed information and scientific rigour are often treated preferentially. The legitimate quest for rapid exchange and the unfortunate trends towards ever shorter peer review process, reduced article lengths and high publication numbers, mean that the scientific information market is flooded with journal articles, preprints and proceedings with little or no quality control. Thorough review and discussion are essential for the detection and minimisation of flawed and useless research activities and results, but under the given conditions they are hard to achieve, and tend to be neglected.

The most promising way to substantially improve mainstream scientific publishing and quality assurance on a short to medium time scale (years to decade) is the implementation of a two-stage publication process, with interactive peer review and public discussion in scientific journals. The principles of the interactive journal concept are outlined in Figure 1 below.

  • Figure 1: Basic principle of the interactive scientific journal concept: two-stage publication process with interactive peer review and public discussion.

A working example
This model offers an all-win situation for authors, referees and readers. Furthermore, its practical applicability has been successfully demonstrated by the interactive scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP). ACP and its discussion forum ACPD (Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions) were launched in September 2001 and are published by the Copernicus Society on behalf of the European Geosciences Union (EGU). EGU is one of the learned societies that signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access (click here for more information), and long before that it started to convert all of its scientific journals into open-access journals.

Figure 2 (below) illustrates the two-stage publication process, with interactive peer review and public discussion as practiced in ACP and ACPD.

  • Figure 2: Two stage publication with interactive peer review and public discussion is practised in the interactive scientific journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP) and its discussion forum ACPD (bold arrows = basic processes; dashed arrows = optional processes).

Both ACP and ACPD are ISSN-registered, permanently archived, and freely accessible via the internet. High-quality paper copies and CDs are printed and sold on demand. For secure archiving the electronic data are stored on several mirror servers, and free paper copies are distributed to major libraries around the world. A globally distributed network of about 70 editors, coordinated by an executive committee and a chief executive editor, cover 32 major subject areas (research subjects and activities) within the scope of the journal. Manuscripts are normally handled by an editor who has a high degree of specialist knowledge in the subject area of the submitted work.

The publication market in the atmospheric sciences currently comprises about 40 traditional journals, publishing about 4,000 papers per year. Well-established traditional journals competing with ACP are, for example, the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres (American Geophysical Union, ~1000 papers/yr), Atmospheric Environment (Elsevier, ~500 papers/year), Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences (American Meteorological Society, ~200 papers/year), Atmospheric Research (Elsevier, ~100 papers/year), and Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry (Kluwer, ~50 papers/year). Two years after its launch, ACP is already very well positioned among its traditional competitors. It publishes more than 150 high quality papers per year, and this is increasing. The journal has also been positively evaluated and is fully covered by the major citation indices of ISI (Institute of Scientific Information) and CAS (Chemical Abstracts Service).

In fact, the recently released ISI journal citation report for 2003 brought some very good news for ACP: the ACP impact factor grew from a preliminary value of 0.7 in 2002 to 2.3 in 2003, which is well among the values of traditional, high-quality atmospheric science journals. The immediacy index increased from 0.41 (2002) to 0.76 (2003) and is the highest among the atmospheric science journals. This confirms that only two years after its launch ACP was already well established among the high quality atmospheric science journals.

Providing complementary information
The ambitions and achievements of ACP, however, extend beyond the publication of high-quality manuscripts with high-visibility and favourable citation statistics. The innovative, two-stage publication process, with interactive peer review and public discussion, has greatly enhanced the value of the work that appears in ACP. The published referee comments, additional comments from the scientific community, and author replies, have added a wealth of complementary information to the peer-reviewed scientific articles, which has not been publicly available in traditional scientific journals. Some discussion papers have received up to 10 or more comments (see Figure 3 below). They comprise compliments and plaudit, constructive supplements, and harsh criticism and controversy. So far, however, no personal offences or abusive commenting have occurred, and there has been no need for the editors to intervene in the open discussion.

Click on the image to see a larger version
  • Figure 3: Screenshot of an example interactive discussion in ACPD. Click on the image to see a close-up.

Interestingly, about two thirds of the referee comments are published anonymously. The rate of attributed referee comments is much lower among experimentalists (~20 per cent) than among modellers (~50 per cent). It appears that the referee comments on modelling studies contain more suggestions and ideas, for which the referees like to claim authorship.

The key features, advantages, and perspectives of the ACP interactive journal concept compared to other initiatives for improved scientific publishing are: free speech and public accountability of authors; maximum quality assurance and information density for final revised manuscripts; documentation of controversial scientific innovations or flaws; and public recognition and documentation of referees' and other commentators' contributions.

During the start-up phase, ACP was financed by the Copernicus Society, the European Geophysical Society (EGS), and the European Geosciences Union (EGU). Since the beginning of 2004, it has been financed by modest service charges levied on the authors. Due to advanced electronic publishing tools, charges as low as 20 euros per page are sufficient to maintain the operation of the journal, which includes offering top-quality manuscript layout and various advanced online services, including personalised publication alerts, advanced search engines, and a referencing system with extensive bibliographic information.

A further decrease of the modest service charges is planned for the next years, because improved electronic publishing tools are being developed by the Copernicus Society and will further reduce the expenses for manuscript handling and typesetting. The introduction of service charges paid by the authors has slowed down the near exponential growth experienced during the first couple of years without charges, but it has not actually decreased the rate of submissions, which is currently about 20 per month and continues to increase. Interactive commenting and discussion have remained and will remain free of charge.

Stimulated by the success of ACP, the EGU will launch more open-access journals with interactive peer review and public discussion. In fact, the union council has voted unanimously that all future EGU journals shall follow the interactive journal concept. The first to do so, Biogeosciences, was launched in early 2004, and further interactive scientific journals on hydrology, ocean, and climate sciences are being developed.

Ulrich Pöschl is at the Technical University of Munich, Institute of Hydrochemistry, Munich, Germany and is an executive editor of ACP.

Further reading

Pöschl, U., Interactive journal concept for improved scientific publishing and quality assurance, Learned Publishing, 17, 105-113, 2004a (
Pöschl, U., Open access: scientific quality assurance by interactive peer review and public discussion, German Physical Society (DPG), Munich, 2004b
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
The Copernicus Society
The European Geosciences Union

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