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Biology journal shortens peer-review process

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BioMed Central's Journal of Biology is giving its authors the chance to opt out of re-review in a bid to speed its publication process. Editor Miranda Robertson said that the latest move is in keeping with the spirit of open access and hopes her journal's 'experimental policy' will relieve author frustrations and accelerate the dissemination of research results.

As with existing practice, all submissions will be screened by a member of the editorial board and then passed onto the reviewers for comment. The authors will then be asked to address any suggestions or demands from the reviewers.

But unlike traditional peer review, authors will now decide whether they wish the referees to take another look at their revised paper or opt out of this second review stage. If they decide against  re-review, the paper will be passed directly to the journal editors for a final review before publication. The editors will also commission the usual accompanying commentary or 'mini-review' from an expert in the field.

'[The authors'] responses will be scrutinised by editors,' asserted Robertson. 'If it seems clear the authors have not met a serious criticism, the paper may be rejected. Otherwise it will be published with the accompanying commentary, and here the author will have had access to the referees' reports and authors' response.'

According to Robertson, the new policy follows consultation with researchers and members of the journal's editorial board. Comments from this exercise ranged from 'I find it mind-boggling what trivia reviewers throw up' to '...something surely needs to be done about the review nightmare.' Robertson is hopeful the experiment will show that referees, authors and journals can work together to accelerate the publication of important research.

However, side-stepping re-review could generate two key problems. First, referees may be reluctant to review a paper, fearing their comments will be disregarded. 'One in five of our editorial board indicated this would apply to them,' Robertson explained. 'Losing 20 per cent of possible referees for a paper would be a serious problem...but if a substantial number of authors opted out of re-review, this would release more time for the remaining 80 per cent [of referees].'

The second issue concerns quality. Could seriously flawed papers find their way into the journal? As Robertson pointed out, this could happen from time to time in most journals. 'Referees do not always see what turn out to be serious flaws... it is not clear that the end result would be any worse under the re-review opt-out,' she said.

Robertson now expects to continue the experiment unless it becomes 'unworkable'. For example, referees may become too difficult to find, or a significant number of papers could be 'savaged' in their accompanying commentary.

But despite the potential pitfalls, Robertson hopes to see the responsibility for ensuring valid results shift from the reviewers to the authors and editors. 'Probably this particular experiment hasn't been attempted before as people have felt the risks of allowing authors to opt out of re-review are too great,' she added. 'I'd like to see if in practice, and under our fairly constricted procedure, the dangers really are so great.'