The benefits of journal-independent open peer review

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Peer review is a vital part of the scholarly communication process, providing an independent assessment of the rigour and validity of research. However, researchers and publishers often highlight issues with peer review. Journal-based peer review is thought to be slow, uses too many resources, and does not reward reviewers. Peer review has problems, but it is fertile ground for innovation. The increasing amount of non-peer reviewed research published as preprints is enabling us to rethink how peer review is conducted. There is a growing ecosystem of platforms that aim to address some of peer review’s problems by providing the option of journal-independent open peer review.

I launched PeerRef in late 2021 to address some of the problems with peer review. At PeerRef, we organise open peer review of preprints and publish reviewer reports on our platform. We aim to make peer review open, provide researchers with more choice in how their research is shared and evaluated, and eliminate the need for repeated peer review in successive journals. 

A common concern for researchers is that there is too much peer review to do. This is not surprising. Based on 5 million publications in 2022, researchers spent 100 million hours on peer review. There is a global average rejection rate of 45% and reviewer reports are generally not published. Consequently, almost half of research undergoes repeated peer review in successive journals. This repetition of peer review is delaying research and wasting an estimated 45 million hours* of researcher time each year that could be spent conducting research and making discoveries. Journal-independent open peer review can eliminate this wasted time by publishing peer reviews of preprints and creating a single point of peer review in the publishing process. Journal editors can make publication decisions based on journal-agnostic open reviews without organising a full round of peer review themselves. This approach can accelerate journal publication, reduce the amount of peer review, and give researchers more time to focus on their research.

A benefit of journal-independent peer review is that a reviewer does not consider whether a piece of research is suitable for a specific journal, nor do they act as a journal gatekeeper. This puts the rigour and validity of the research at the centre of the assessment and allows the reviewer to focus on constructive feedback. I believe this will increase the quality of feedback, making peer review more useful to authors.

Journal-independent peer review platforms do not need to rely on editor networks to select reviewers. We can expand the pool of reviewers by experimenting with new approaches to sourcing reviewers. At PeerRef, we use internal and third-party tools to identify suitable expert reviewers for all types of research. The method is efficient and allows us to seek peer review from researchers that are often excluded from peer review such as early career researchers. PREreview also seeks to diversify reviewer pools by offering peer review training and enabling all researchers to participate in the peer review of preprints.

PeerRef and other journal-independent peer review platforms publish signed peer reviews and assign DOIs to them. In addition to the benefits mentioned, the open publication of reviews brings value to the research community. The reviews can provide more context to research articles, be used to train reviewers, and be used in research assessment. Reviewers benefit from open peer review as they can share peer review output and add it to their CVs. This allows funders and institutions to consider published peer reviews in grant proposals and promotion decisions.

Finally, a journal-independent approach to peer review gives authors more choices and allows us to question whether journal publication is necessary for all research. Authors can access peer review for non-traditional research outputs such as negative results or iterative studies that may benefit from feedback. Other research may benefit from peer review but not require the complete journal publication process, which can be time-consuming and expensive. Journal-independent peer review allows authors to decide which of their preprints are evaluated and if their refereed preprint is the final product, or if it should be submitted to a journal for publication. 

Innovation has been consistent across academic publishing over the last decade. The open access movement is providing greater access to research and the growth in preprints is allowing researchers to rapidly share work. Start-ups Axios and Rubriq were previously unsuccessful in establishing portable peer review. But I believe we have reached the point where journal-independent peer review can succeed. The rise in preprints has enabled the creation of several platforms that offer journal-independent peer review. PeerRef organises peer review for all types of research while platforms including Review Commons, Peer Community In, and Biophysics Colab organise journal-independent peer review for specific research communities. PREreview allows authors to request peer review for their preprint from the PREreview community.

Momentum is growing around journal-independent peer review of preprints. eLife has created Sciety, which aggregates peer reviewed preprints and allows anyone to curate lists of reviewed preprints. JMIR is also supporting journal-independent peer review with their Plan P initiative. Funders are in support of journal-independent peer review. In 2022 cOAlition S made the statement that they consider peer reviewed preprints to have equivalent merit to peer-reviewed journal publications. HHMI, ASAPbio and EMBO recently organised a meeting between funders, publishers, researchers, and peer review platforms with the aim of creating funder, institutional, and journal policies for the peer review of preprints. Several resources have resulted from that meeting, which ASAPbio have posted on their website. All funders and publishers can help drive this change by establishing policies that recognise and encourage journal-independent peer review.

The journal-independent peer review movement is at an early stage. There are technical and behavioural challenges to overcome, but with collaboration across academic publishing, we will improve peer review for everyone.

*45 million hours of peer review based on: 5 million publications in 2022 (Dimensions), a rejection rate of 45%, 4 million rejections, 11.5 hours of peer review per article

Elliott Lumb is the founder of PeerRef, a journal-independent peer review platform