The peer review process is an integral part of scholarly publishing, designed to evaluate the importance, validity, and originality of a paper. There are five peer review models currently in use, all with various benefits and drawbacks. Transparent peer review is a relative newcomer and not widely used at present, but it has grown in popularity and is becoming an increasingly popular choice. The question is—why? This blog post takes a closer look at the transparent peer review process, its rise in popularity, and the challenges journals, reviewers, and editors face with this model.
What is transparent peer review?
Transparent peer review is a model that showcases the full reviewing process. Alongside a published article, readers can see the full peer review history, including reviewer reports, the editor’s decision letters, and the author’s response. It is called “transparent” because this review model allows everyone to see and understand the reasons for the editor’s decision. This contrasts with some of the more traditional peer review models, which leave readers in the dark. Transparent peer review shines a light on how and why the publication decision was made.
Open and transparent peer review are like siblings—similar, but not the same. Unlike in anonymous peer review models, with open peer review the author and reviewer identities are disclosed to one another and the reader. This disclosure isn’t a requirement in transparent peer review—if a reviewer wants to reveal their identity they can do so, but the reviewer report can be published anonymously if preferred.
Popularity of transparency
There are many reasons why this model has risen in popularity. Confidence in peer review has decreased due to untruthful practices like fake peer review and peer review bias. With the single anonymised peer review model there is sometimes concern that knowing the author’s identity can lead to bias from reviewers and editors, or unfair judgement tainting the decision-making. Because of this, authors are likely to have doubts in the peer review process. Furthermore, the high amount of confidentiality and information restriction can feed into the perception of secrecy in publishing.
Transparent peer review aims to restore trust in the integrity and fairness of the peer review process.
Transparent peer review aims to restore trust in the integrity and fairness of the peer review process. Because identities, reviewer reports, and decisions are published, the process is documented for the reader to see. There is also a hope that reviewers may spend more time on clear and constructive comments if they know they will be publicly visible and attributed to them.
Findings show that Early Career Researchers (ECRs) are choosing transparent peer review processes as it encourages constructive open feedback and facilitates discussion. This is advantageous for ECRs as it allows them to improve and progress professionally. The preference for transparent peer review can also be seen in the context of ECRs’ more general adoption of openness and collaboration in research and publishing. ECRs tend to prefer using open-source software as part of their research and write-up processes and are more likely to publish in open access journals, as these concepts complement each other. Open access papers are cited on average more than papers behind a paywall and opening up the data behind the research can lead to more openness when it comes to reproducibility. Transparent peer review is another way of achieving these goals, and it can help to identify any conflicts of interest in the peer review process, such as being a collaborator on a research project.
Transparent peer review challenges
A lot of research on transparent peer review is focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) publications, so the outcomes and lessons could be seen as limited, especially when considering the different needs of SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy) publications and peer review processes. In SHAPE, the preferred peer review method is usually a longer process and double-anonymised. According to the Publishing Research Consortium, 50-70% of the SHAPE researchers would support open peer review. However, that support would decrease to 35-55% if open peer review were to include signed reviews published with the associated article. Nevertheless, SHAPE could take advantage of the benefits of transparent peer review to facilitate dialogue and collaboration between authors.
Other challenges for transparent review may include authors and reviewers not being comfortable with their comments being shared and identities potentially disclosed. Some reviewers may alter how they are writing their reports if they know it will be published with the paper, which could introduce bias. Another challenge could be a reduction in the number of reviewers willing to work with a journal that has transparent peer review, exacerbating the current difficulties many journals face attracting and recruiting enough reviewers To counter this, many publications with transparent peer review processes offer an opt-in option. It is important to ensure clarity in journal peer review policies and that all parties provide the relevant consent. Journals should adopt policies that explain exactly what will be made available in the transparent peer review process, and authors or reviewers who are not sure about these policies should contact the relevant Editorial Office.
We offer support and refer our editors, authors, and reviewers to the COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers. We do not support one system of peer review over another, but we encourage our journals to publish their peer review procedures as part of their submission guidelines.
Several of our journals offer optional transparent peer review, such as Oxford Open Immunology, Brain Communications, and FEMS Microbes. This means that the author is asked at manuscript submission whether they would like the review comments to be made available should the paper be accepted after peer review. Reviewers can also opt to reveal their identity, either by signing their review or agreeing to have their name appear on the published manuscript. Where we offer this, and the option is taken up, the peer review comments are published as supplementary files.
For more details about peer review processes, please see our Fair Editing and Peer Review guidance.