In 1832, the Royal Society moved from using committee minutes to written peer review reports for determining what was published in Philosophical Transactions. This was conveyed by Frederick Augustus, The Duke of Sussex in his Presidential address of November that year.

The Duke of Sussex

The Duke of Sussex

The reports were written by members of Council and were often made public. They were ‘often more valuable than the original communications upon which they are founded’.

The reporting was collaborative and referees were expected to reach a consensus. This was time consuming and could be problematic, especially when referees disagreed. It was therefore abandoned after 1832, and both reports and the names of reviewers were kept confidential.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 21st Century that publishers (such as BMC, BMJ and PLoS) started to seriously experiment with open peer review.


Transparency is back in vogue

Why is this? The first reason is the politicisation of science. A good example is climate change — when scientists from the University of East Anglia were bombarded with freedom of information requests by climate sceptics, it became clear there was a lack of transparency and this was used to undermine the veracity of the research. Policy based on published research is under increased scrutiny.

The second reason stems from the open science and open access agenda. Much research is funded by the public purse and it is argued that the published output from this research should be available to all. It follows that the evidence — data, peer review — on which claims are made should be made open too.

Finally, transparency has the potential to improve the quality of research and reduce research misconduct. Traditional peer review is confidential, with research papers scrutinised by a small number of anonymous experts. Although publishers are vigilant, this secrecy provides the opportunity for fraud.

In 2014, the Royal Society launched the journal Royal Society Open Science which offers optional open peer review where reports are published along with articles. This has proved popular with the majority of authors opting for publication of peer review reports and half of reviewers signing their reports. The uptake varies by scientific discipline.


Graph showing authors opting for open peer review in RSOS, by subject area


Since then, open peer review has been introduced on two further Royal Society journals, Proceedings A and Open Biology.


Benefits of transparency in peer review

There are several benefits to open peer review.

  1. Readers can see the comments by reviewers and reach their own conclusions about the rigour and fairness of the process. They can also see how the authors have responded to the criticism and if any errors or shortcomings in the article have been missed. Readers have more information on which to base any comments they may wish to make after publication. In this way, the published science can be improved.
  2. Reviewers’ suggestions to improve the paper are available to everyone as examples of what makes a good review. This is particularly useful for early career scientists who may have limited experience of reviewing articles themselves.
  3. Reviewers tend to write better and more balanced reviews if they know they will be made public.
  4. By signing their reports reviewers can get recognition for this vital contribution to the research process. Peer review recognition services are becoming more common, with examples including Publons and ORCID.

Overall, the whole peer review process gains more trust and accountability when everything is transparent.


Is open peer review just a passing fad (like in 1832)?

Back in 1832, science wasn’t ready for transparency – producing detailed written reports for public judgement on the value of a paper was just too much work for the small number of referees, and publicly criticising peers was socially very difficult.

Today, because science is funded largely by the public purse and informs so much public policy, transparency is essential. In recent decades many believe that impact and citations have played far too prominent a role in determining what is published. Transparency is important in helping journals focus on the quality and rigour of the research process rather than its likely impact, originality and even fashion. A vital part of this opening up of peer review is recognising the value of such work as an essential ‘output’ in assessments for grants and tenure. There is cause for optimism that the abandonment of open peer review in 1832 will not be repeated.


5 Responses to “Transparency in peer review”

  1. Prof. Thomas Dandekar

    Dear Dr. Hurst,

    you mention yourself “The reporting was collaborative and referees were expected to reach a consensus. This was time consuming and could be problematic, especially when referees disagreed.”
    Right, this is the main problem:
    Peer reviewing is time consuming, however, the journals explode.
    So nobody has enough time to do this (maybe old-fashioned but good)
    peer reviewing in the community until a consensus has been reached.

    Now, the standard blind peer review has at least the advantage that also critical comments on the paper can be mentioned and the quality of the publication kept high. I completely agree, reaching a consensus would be better, but in general not attempted and too time consuming, instead the editor reads all comments and he should form the consensus opionion – which he/she generally does quite well.

    Now, open peer review does again not happen in a forum but you are alone and you have to look at the peers in your community. If you even post your criticism on the web of your colleagues work this leads to very constructive peer review (positive point), but seldom to really tough criticism.
    Try to remember how it was in your own PhD time. So though in principle in an internet age which thinks of open minds an open peer review system sounds attractive, I am pretty convinced that open peer reviews give lower quality reviews then blind peer reviews. I even would think that double blind peer review is still better. The consensus of the different opinions is then reached by the editor and everybody can voice all critical points without fear to be slashed back by the community for instance if a “big boss” is critized in open peer review by a younger group leader. This is the advantage of blind peer review. Of course it is the duty of the editor to insist only on the fair comments to be answered by the authors.

    Thanking you for your consideration,

    sincerely yours

    Thomas Dandekar

  2. Andrea Pugliese

    I understand the value of transparency, and I do agree that reading the reviews of a manuscript may be quite valuable for better understanding and assessing a paper.
    However, anonymity can also be very helpful: I have happened to suggest to reject manuscripts of good friends of mine; presumably I would not have done that if I had to sign the review.
    Similarly, with anonymity a young scientist can criticize the work of very influential people.
    I understand that anonimity can also encourage fraud, but it’s up to the responsibility of editors avoiding that.
    I am afraid that, without anonymity, reviews would all tend to get bland and mildly supportive.

  3. graham towl

    Moves towards open peer reviews are to be welcomed. And this should surely be normative in the academic world. There may, on ocassion be a case for double blind reviews. But increasingly the case for single blind review with its institutionalised power inequaliy looks unwise and may well lend itself to the unethical. The more and steeper such power inequalities are the greater the potential for abuse.

  4. Kenneth Barnsley

    As you say, traditional peer review is confidential, with research papers scrutinised by a small number of anonymous experts. This can lead to new theories being blocked, at least for a time. If everything is transparent the review process will gain more trust.


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