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Open Peer Review at Nature

by Andre on 11 June 2006

Nature has started an experiment in “open peer review.” From their website:

The trial will not displace Nature’s traditional confidential peer review process, but will complement it. From 5 June 2006, authors may opt to have their submitted manuscripts posted publicly for comment.

Any scientist may then post comments, provided they identify themselves. Once the usual confidential peer review process is complete, the public ‘open peer review’ process will be closed. Editors will then read all comments on the manuscript and invite authors to respond. At the end of the process, as part of the trial, editors will assess the value of the public comments.

It sounds like a very interesting idea to me, and the first trial papers are already available for your consideration. Another plus is that they are hosting an online debate on peer review that is also worth reading.

In the comments to Alex Palazzo’s post on the subject, some readers expressed concern about making their data public in this forum with no guarantee that it will be published, thus increasing the likelihood of getting scooped and not getting the credit for their discovery. The trial’s FAQ is direct:

Whether or not the preprint is eventually published in Nature, isn’t there a chance of the results being scooped by competitors?


I think these are legitimate concerns but that they don’t reflect a flaw in the idea of open peer review so much as a flaw in this particular implementation. In this case, papers are made public on Nature’s website and are considered for publication. If the editor(s) decide that the article is not acceptable for Nature (which will be the case for most papers submitted to a top tier journal) then the “manuscript and comments on the preprint server will be removed from public access, and the author is free to resubmit the manuscript elsewhere.” Contrast this with the system enjoyed by physicists using the arXiv. Papers submitted to the arXiv will remain there whether the paper is accepted in a peer reviewed journal or not and since in some sub-fields the arXiv submission rate is essentially 100%, this submission is considered a claim on intellectual real estate thus making scooping after submission impossible.

A system with a well respected preprint server like arXiv as its base will have a better chance of being accepted by the scientific community than one based on a temporary, journal specific preprint server like the one Nature is using for this trial.

I don’t know if this Nature trial will succeed in the sense that open review will become a standard option—or even the standard—at Nature but I hope that if it fails it doesn’t taint the concept of open review unnecessarily.

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