Authors should prepare for post-publication review

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As the world of scientific publishing changes, authors need to be prepared for post-publication peer comments on their work, argues Anna Sharman

When it comes to publishing their research, traditionally the main aim of many scientists has been to get published in a journal with an impact factor as high as possible. The paper is reviewed by two or three peer reviewers, perhaps rejected by a journal or two before it is finally accepted, and that’s that. All the authors need to do next is to put it on their CVs and take the credit for it.

But the scientific publishing and reward system is changing in many ways that affect the life of a paper after it is published.

First, the traditional system of anonymous peer review before publication is coming under criticism for not spotting problems with some high-profile papers. The reports of arsenic-based life or STAP stem cells are extreme examples, but they show that review by just a few peers is not always sufficient to spot problems in a study.

Second, a new kind of journal has emerged where pre-publication peer review assesses only whether the science is sound, not how exciting it is. The megajournal approach acknowledges that judging the ‘importance’ of a piece of research is subjective, so a small number of peer reviewers and editors can make the wrong call. Many of these journals are also cutting down on the copy-editing they do after papers are accepted.

And third, more and more researchers – including some biologists as well as most physicists – are posting preprints online, and journals are emerging that offer peer review after publication. On these platforms, papers that have not been peer reviewed are visible to anyone.
All these trends mean that there is a greater need for post-publication peer review, both to identify problems with papers and preprints and to help readers find the exciting ones in their field of interest.

For a few years, post-publication commenting has been happening on social media, particularly Twitter. Services such as Altmetric and ImpactStory collect social media comments and link them back to the original article, but it is all too easy for these comments to be missed by readers of an article.

Journals have had commenting enabled on the online versions of papers for a while, but few papers have had many comments, and substantive criticism is even rarer. Only the BMJ has had much success with commenting, in the form of its ‘Rapid Responses’.

But centralised commenting platforms such as PubPeer and PubMed Commons are starting to change things.

PubPeer allows anonymous commenting, but an academic email address is needed to become a registered ‘peer’. Anyone can now install a browser plugin so that when they come across an article that has been discussed on PubPeer they will automatically be alerted.
PubMed is the first place biomedical researchers go when looking for papers. Now it is encouraging users to comment on papers in its PubMed Commons system. Comments appear below the abstract when anyone finds it in a PubMed search. Unlike in PubPeer, no anonymous commenting is allowed; only if you are an author of a paper listed in PubMed can you add comments on any paper.

Both PubPeer and PubMed Commons have published comments on hundreds of articles so far. And, if a paper is commented on using PubPeer or PubMed Commons, most readers who look for the paper will now see the comments.

Being prepared

So what does this mean for authors? It means that they need to be aware of comments on their papers – because readers will be aware of them. They need to be prepared to reply to the commenters – this can be to justify decisions, or to provide clarification, or to admit an error.

Whatever the comments say, authors can no longer afford to ignore them.
But post-publication peer review doesn’t just matter for already-published papers. Authors increasingly need to think about it while preparing a paper. Peer reviewers and journal staff cannot correct all the errors in the paper before the rest of the world sees them.

When pre-publication review was dominant and post-publication comments were hard to find, a few errors wouldn’t come back to bite the author. But many eyes spot errors more effectively than few. If a paper gets a reasonable number of readers then any errors will be spotted, and, if they are spotted, other readers will be alerted to them.

So authors need to invest in ensuring their papers are correct, clear and complete before they go near a journal. One way to do this is for the authors to double- and triple-check it themselves. But everyone can miss errors in text that they have written themselves, especially after many drafts. It is amazing how a fresh eye can pick up something that the author just doesn’t see.

Another way is to ask colleagues or friends to check the paper. However, other academics are busy doing research, writing their own papers and commenting on other work, and friends who aren’t trained in science or in editing papers are unlikely to spot technical problems.

Editing companies are emerging that check papers before submission to journals. They can do this at a range of levels, from simple correction of the grammar to alerting you to inconsistencies, missing information and common conventions that have not been followed.

This new world may be daunting, and researchers may be wary of the time it will take to deal with comments on their papers. But post-publication peer review will enable science to move forward more quickly, as it gradually takes less time for errors to be corrected and exciting results to be identified.

Eventually, authors of work that is highly rated in online comments and that is built on in later work will be rewarded, as new metrics gradually take over from the impact factor. People who make constructive comments will also be rewarded, and doing peer review will become more worthwhile.

Peer review will become what it always should have been – a way to improve science, not to slow it down.

Anna Sharman is the founder and director of Cofactor, a London-based company that offers editing, training and consultancy to help scientists publish their research more effectively