Peer Review - reviewed: Phil Hurst, Royal Society


We are joined this month by Phil Hurst, Publisher at the Royal Society. The Royal Society is the world’s oldest independent scientific academy and has made various  innovations in the way it publishes and distributes scientific content. Phil has been at the centre of that process and we caught up with Phil to discuss why peer review matters to him.

What does peer review mean to you?
“I subscribe to the motto of the Royal Society ‘Nullius in verba‘ which is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment, rather than merely relying on authority.

Science has a transformative effect on society, for example by improving human health, mitigating climate change, securing food and energy supply, or improving global communication. However, when new claims are made, they require full scrutiny and validation.

It is my view that the principle of review by peers offers the best model for such scrutiny. However, the practical application of this principle by journals is highly variable and not without flaws. I think we now have the opportunity to tackle some of those flaws.”

How is peer review regarded in the research community?
“Survey after survey demonstrates that researchers really value peer review – some argue it is the most important (or even only) worthwhile thing academic journals offer. The fact that millions of researchers do it for free to help the scientific enterprise is testament to this. The highest rated reasons for reviewing a paper are social (‘playing my part as a member of the academic community’ and ‘reciprocating the benefit gained when others review my papers’).

However, there is a growing view that researchers should be better recognized for this vital activity. Funders, institutions and publishers are beginning to wake up to this. Why are researchers still mainly recognized by publication in elite journals with high impact factors? Conducting high quality peer review, sharing and curating data and making research reproducible are surely just as important.”

What is the Royal Society doing to challenge the changing landscape in peer review and scholarly communications?
“In order to improve the culture of science, the Royal Society’s journals are focusing on recognition and transparency. This has to be built on a firm foundation. The Society is a strong advocate for the ORCID initiative which allows each researcher to have their own unique record and identifier. The beauty of ORCID is that it embraces technology to make it easy for researchers to collect their publication and peer review activity in one place. In some ways it can be regarded a ‘recognition portal’ which can be used when applying for grants or tenure. In consort with several publishers, the Society was the first to mandate all submitting authors to provide an ORCID iD in an effort to increase adoption.

Surveys of our referees have shown that they value recognition at both the general and journal level. We were an early integrator with the Publons referee recognition platform. Integration makes it simple for the referee to get recognition when reviewing for Royal Society journals. At first, researchers were a little suspicious of doing this – but they now value it (as evidenced by improved rates of accepting invitations to review). Publons also makes it easy for the researcher to add this recognition to their ORCID record. At the journal level, we have reinstated a tradition practice of listing the names of reviewers. Such articles are assigned a DOI which allow them to be a citable research output.

When the journal, Royal Society Open Science was launched we decided to incorporate optional open peer review. Authors are able to opt to publish referee reports, responses to reviewer comments and decision letters alongside their published paper. Separately, referees have the option to sign their reviews or remain anonymous. About two-thirds of authors opt for open peer review and 50% of these are signed by referees. For a journal publishing in all areas of science (with cultural differences in practice between them), I am encouraged by this uptake. We have since extended open peer review to two further journals.

The Society also encourages authors to post preprints prior to article submission and invites other researchers to comment on research post publication. The ambition is a fully transparent system which provides open peer review before, during and after publication. I believe this maximises the chance of the best possible peer review and contributes to changing the landscape of scholarly communication.”

How can researchers get more involved in ensuring the integrity of their research?
“The manifesto for reproducible science provides a useful roadmap to help researchers ensure the integrity of their research. It outlines a number of problems such as small sample sizes, data dredging (p-hacking) and conflicts of interest. A key remedy is pre-registration. This involves peer review of the study methodology to ensure it is fit for purpose before the experiment is conducted. If the researcher sticks to this methodology, the results are published even if the results are negative. Along with an increasing number of journals, Royal Society Open Science is offering this publication route via Registered Reports.

More generally, researchers can help foster a change to a research culture to reward how science is conducted rather than simply publication in elite journals. They will need to help of funders, institutions, learned societies and publishers to make this change.”

To find out what other key leaders in the peer review world think about peer review, check out the Peer review – reviewed series.

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