Liz Wager on stem cell scientists’ criticisms of peer review

Liz WagerStem cell researchers from some major international institutions have written an open letter to journal editors complaining that they have received unreasonable and obstructive reviews (Euro Stem Cell)

Although the letter was published in June 2009 it was picked up by the media today. According to broadcast interviews, the researchers claim that peer review is sometimes used by their competitors to block or delay publication, for example by requiring further experiments to be done. The people behind the letter suggest such abuses of peer review might be prevented if journals published reviewers’ comments alongside articles. They note that the EMBO Journal has adopted this policy and, in fact, BioMed Central’s medical journals have been doing it for years, and go one step further by publishing the reviewers’ names (whereas the stem-cell scientists suggested the reviews should be anonymous). Of course, publishing reviewers’ comments won’t do anything for papers that are rejected but it’s certainly an interesting proposal. The BMJ has used open peer review for some time now, so that authors know who reviewed their article, but the process is closed as far as readers are concerned. Before introducing the system, the BMJ did some experiments to see whether open review would make reviewers more conscientious, thorough or polite. Rather disappointingly, it didn’t seem to make any difference, but at least the studies showed that open review was feasible, as only a few reviewers refused to cooperate.

It’s possible that people reviewing for an international, general journal might feel differently when reviewing for a local or highly specialised journal, since the chances of knowing the authors and therefore being concerned about the effect of criticising their work might differ. I certainly feel differently about signing a review (especially when it’s critical) if I know the author personally. The stem-cell researchers suggest reviews should remain anonymous, but that makes it impossible for readers to judge whether the reviewer has a competing interest and I have my doubts whether anybody outside the field would be able to judge whether reviewers’ comments were reasonable, but transparency sounds like a good idea. Others may argue that anonymity is essential to protect reviewers and ensure they can be candid without fearing the consequences. Most journals have stuck with traditional, rather than open, review and there’s no convincing evidence about which system is better, but if the stem-cell researchers’ letter makes editors think about their peer review systems, that at least will be a good thing.

Liz Wager is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).