AAS Open Research

Peer Review: A matter of trust

At AAS Open Research, we are proud to facilitate a radically better way for The Academy grantees to communicate their research, by providing a publishing platform where the research is published first, and the peer review takes place after (post publication peer review) in a fully open and transparent manner. As this week (21st-25th September) marks Peer Review Week, the Peer Review Team delve into the meaning of this year’s theme of ‘Trust in Peer Review’ and explore how our transparent peer review process is ideally suited to building trust.

AAS Open Research operates an open and transparent post-publication peer review process, where the peer-review process takes place after an article has already been published, and all peer-review reports provided by our reviewers are published online alongside the article so that they are fully visible.

This is a model that differs from the traditional, based on an approach that is author-led, where the names of reviewers, their affiliations and conflicts of interest are all published alongside the article, rather than being hidden away in the shadows. Validations and critiques of the research are openly and publicly available, and this transparency promotes a constructive peer-review process, as well as encourages other interested readers to contribute to the discussion between the authors and reviewers, for example by leaving a comment to give their own opinion on the article and/or the peer-review reports themselves. All readers can track the progress of the article and its status in real time. This is a system that is built on a foundation of trust, and this week we explain how all these measures help build confidence in the quality of the published work.

Checking reviewer suitability

We run an author-led peer review process and allow authors to suggest their own reviewers. We are aware that researchers will know their fields a lot better than we do, and having authors involved more in the peer review process allows everyone to have a better understanding of what is going on. As most, if not all, researchers act as peer reviewers at some point in their career we believe that they know what is required, and we provide guidelines and lots of further information on our website. This adds an additional layer of trust between the us and the authors, as we expect them to make ethical choices.

The editorial team carry out thorough checks on peer review suggestions to ensure researchers are qualified, an expert in the relevant field and have no conflicts of interest. We have a list of Reviewer Suitability Checks that all must adhere to. Reviewers should hold a PhD (or an MD) in a relevant field and have published at least 3 articles on the subject. We also check that they are not associated with any of the authors of the paper, whether that be working at the same institution or publishing papers together. We ask reviewers to declare if there are any other conflicts of interest e.g. friendships or funding we are unaware of as we discussed earlier. The editorial team also makes sure that every article obtains a global spread of reviewers, to reduce country to country bias and to gain an international perspective.

Case by case basis

Of course, these checks can be looked at on a case by case basis depending on the subject of the article or the country the reviewer is from. Some fields do not require PhDs, so if a reviewer is widely published and a current researcher, we can still accept them.

All these checks enable us to know that every researcher we invite to peer review for AAS Open Research will be able to provide a current, in-depth and knowledgeable review. This ensures all articles published with us get the best feedback possible and are indexed efficiently.

Conflicts of interest often occur in the scientific world, whether this is to do with funding or an overlap in a consortium group. We have open discussions with authors and reviewers about whether they can produce an unbiased review, and we declare all competing interests alongside reports. This allows readers and future researches to have all the information in regard to the peer review process easily accessible to them.

A conflict of interest?

One of the benefits of our approach is being able to read the peer review reports for all articles across AAS Open Research and the platforms it powers (link to be added when second blog is published). Compared to the more common traditional peer review model, this is rare and offers insights often not afforded to readers of scientific research.

An aspect which is under-discussed, probably even by us at AAS Open Research, is being able to see the competing interests’ statements of both the authors and the reviewers. It is standard practise to see it for the authors, as this has the potential to influence the work undertaken and the way the results are interpreted. The same ideas can also be applied to the competing interests of a reviewer, who is able to directly influence whether the article passes the peer review process.

The gains made from objectivity and impartiality

We consider a wide range of things to be potential competing interests and a full list of these can be found here. We break these down into financial (such as software owned by the reviewer used in the article) and non-financial (such working alongside the authors recently). As mentioned as part of reviewer checks section, we mainly check that the institution doesn’t match between author and reviewer and that they have not collaborated recently. However, there is no definitive list and we discuss whether the reviewers feel they can provide us with an unbiased peer review report when appropriate to do so.

There are occasions where a reader will contact us and let us know that a competing interest has not been declared. Situations like this are rare, as the trust we show towards reviewers is almost always rewarded by their honesty. On the odd occasion the trust is misplaced, we will investigate the allegation that there are undeclared competing interest and if necessary, will be able to highlight these on the peer review reports when appropriate.

We feel that publishing reviewers competing interests, especially alongside their fully published, citable peer review report can only be beneficial for scholarly publishing, increasing the trust we all have in the peer review process.