The flagship journal of the Society for Neuroscience has pivoted to open peer review in an attempt to give fellow scientists insights into the publication process.
Under the new policy, which went into effect at the Journal of Neuroscience (JNeurosci) on 31 October, the journal publishes anonymized reviews, author rebuttals and editorial decision letters alongside accepted manuscripts. Reviewers and authors maintain the option to keep confidential their anonymized or signed comments and rebuttals, respectively. The journal plans to track the opt-out metrics and report them to the community at unspecified intervals.
JNeurosci is the latest in a long list of journals to infuse transparency into a traditionally opaque process. Confidential forms of peer review enable candid exchanges of opinion but can be inconsistent in quality and shelter potential biases and conflicts of interest. Open peer review aims to correct those issues, although some academics are skeptical because the spotlight may increase anxiety among reviewers and authors or decrease the number of academics willing to review manuscripts.
“Given that you’re already dealing with a system that is very imperfect, we just want to make [it] better by enhancing its transparency,” says Sabine Kastner, editor-in-chief of JNeurosci.
The journal eNeuro, also published by the Society for Neuroscience, and several journals owned by Springer Nature, including BMC Neuroscience and Nature Communications, already practice versions of transparency in peer review, as do eLife and the PLOS family of journals, among others. Neuron and Nature Neuroscience both maintain confidential peer review.
As a former senior editor at eLife, Kastner says she became convinced that open review “was the new standard of scientific publishing.” She then implemented it at Elsevier’s Progress in Neurobiology in 2018 as editor-in-chief, and she says seven other Elsevier journals later followed suit.
Shortly after Kastner arrived at JNeurosci in January, an internal voluntary survey of JNeurosci authors and reviewers conducted by the journal in early 2023 suggested that the “vast majority” were excited about the switch to open review, Kastner says.
Academics have been increasingly accepting of open peer review, past surveys suggest. And publishing anonymized reviews does not impact scientists’ willingness to review, according to a 2019 study of five journals. But less than 10 percent of referees in that study chose to affix their name to their review.
Self-citation requests by reviewers did not decrease during open peer review compared with private review, according to a 2015 study. Allowing reviewers to know the identities of authors during review, which is called a “single-blind” review and is something JNeurosci does, increases the advantage of well-known authors and prestigious institutions, a 2017 study suggests.
The option to maintain a confidential peer review at JNeurosci shows the journal understands that “open peer review is not neutral,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscience researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “There are huge power dynamics in play,” he adds.
Kastner agrees. As progressive as full transparency sounds, “it doesn’t really work out that way,” she says. Early-career reviewers may worry about the impact of public criticism on their career trajectory. Prominent scientists’ clout may unduly sway the scientific community’s response to a study. Reviewers might inflate their positive comments or choose to not review the paper at all, Kastner says.
But public comments prompt reviewers to “think twice about what they write and pay more attention to the tone and to substantive aspects of what they’re writing,” says Brad Postle, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
The announcement from JNeurosci spurred inquiries on social media about whether the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience would follow suit, Postle says. “[Open peer review] is under consideration as we speak.”
Although there are no specific plans to modify peer review at Springer Nature’s Nature Neuroscience, editor-in-chief Shari Wiseman says, “I think that kind of thing would be in keeping with our larger mission of promoting transparency and open science.”