Peerage of science, first impressions

After I wrote a post about reviewing papers, Craig Primmer suggested on Twitter that I look into Peerage of Science. Peerage of Science is a portal and community for peer review. It has a lot of good ideas. It decouples reviewing from journal submission, but it is still made for papers aimed to be published in a conventional journal. It collects reviewers and manuscripts from a different fields in one place, allows interested reviewers to select papers they want to review, and provides anonymity (if the authors want it). I once wrote a few sentences about what I thought ”optimal peer review” would be like, for a PLOS early career researchers’ travel grant. (I did not get the grant.) My ideas for better peer review were probably not that bright, or that realistic, but they did share several features with the Peerage of Science model. Naturally, I was interested.

I’ve tried reviewing for Peerage of Science for a couple of months. My first impression is that it seems to work really well. The benefits are quite obvious: I’ve seen some of the papers get more reviews than they would typically get at a journal, and the reviews usually seem no less elaborate. The structured form for reviewing is helpful, and corresponds well with what I think a good review should be like. I think I’ll stick around, look out for the notifications, and jump in when a paper is close to my interests. I really hope enough people will use Peerage of Science for it to be successful.

There are also downsides to this model:

There seems to be an uneven allocation of reviewer effort. Some papers have a lot of reviewers, but some have only one. Of course, only the people at Peerage of Science know the actual distribution of reviews. Maybe one reviewer processes are actually very rare! This is a bit like post-publication review, except that there, you can at least know who else has already commented on a paper. I know some people think that this is a good thing. Papers that attract interest also attract scrutiny, and thus reviewer effort is directed towards where it is most needed. But I think that in the ideal case, every paper would be reviewed thoroughly. This could be helped by an indicator of how many other reviewers have engaged, or at least already posted their essays.

There is also the frustration of coming late to a process where one feels the reviewers have done a poor job. This was my first experience. I joined a review process that was at its last stages, and found a short, rather sloppy review that missed most of what I thought were the important points, and belaboured what I thought was a non-issue. Too late did I realize that I could do nothing about it.

Who reviews the reviewers? The reviewers do. I see the appeal of scoring and weighting reviews. It certainly makes reviewing more of a learning experience, which must be a good thing. But I feel rather confused about what I am supposed to write as reviewer feedback. Evidently, I’m not alone, because people seem to put rather different things in the feedback box.

Since the Peerage of Science team have designed the whole format and platform, I assume that every part of the process is thought through. The feedback forms, the prompts that are shown with each step, the point at which different pieces of information is revealed to you — this is part of a vision of better peer review. But sometimes, that vision doesn’t fully make sense to me. For example, if the authors want to sign their manuscripts, Peerage of Science has the following ominous note for them:

Peerage of Science encourages Authors to remain anonymous during the review process, to ensure unbiased peer review and publishing decisions. Reviewers usually expect this too, and may perceive signed submissions as attempts to influence their evaluation and respond accordingly.

Also, I’d really really really love to be able to turn down the frequency of email notifications. In the last four days, I’ve gotten more than one email a day about review processes I’m involved in, even if I can’t do anything more until after the next deadline.

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