Are peer-reviewers free to openly share the content of their reviews if journal editors haven’t explicitly told them not to? Jon Tennant, a scientist-turned-outreach specialist, thinks so.
Tennant had reviewed a research paper submitted to the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. He recommended that the authors’ new approach to studying fossil seabird fauna should be published. The journal’s editors agreed and published the paper.
Tennant, who now works as communications director at ScienceOpen, an online platform that promotes open-access research, wanted to receive credit for his unpaid peer-review work. With permission from the authors of the paper, he decided to openly post the text of his review on Publons, a platform for sharing reviews.
But his post was turned down. Publons told him that the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, requires reviewers to obtain permission from journal editors before posting a review.
That was not part of the deal — at least, not explicitly — Tennant argues. “I didn’t sign a confidentiality agreement, and I was not aware that I had implicitly agreed to the journal’s policies,” he says. Since he retains the copyright for his review, he argues that he is free to publish its text if he has not made any other pre-agreement with the journal.
Elsevier does have peer-review guidelines on its website, notes Thomas Algeo, a geochemist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and co-editor-in-chief of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. According to the guidelines, reviewers “must not share information about the review with anyone without permission from the editors and authors”.
Those policies are in line with general guidelines adopted by the Committee on Publication Ethics, an independent organization that sets standards for scientific publication. Peer-reviewers should “respect the confidentiality of peer review and not reveal any details of a manuscript or its review, during or after the peer-review process, beyond those that are released by the journal”, the guidelines say.
“These are general community standards for peer review, of which all experienced science professionals should be aware,” says Algeo.
But Tennant says he was never explicitly pointed to Elsevier’s guidelines. He says that before he raised his objections, he had added a note to his personal website, saying that he charges £10,000 (US$12,500) for peer reviews. Does this mean, he asks, that because he didn't point journal editors to this condition, he could claim money?
The question is a rhetorical jab, Tennant says: he’s not trying to get cash. But he says that some journals are failing to explicitly communicate their terms and conditions for reviewers.
Another co-editor for the journal, palaeoclimatologist Paul Hesse at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, agrees that the journal itself is not specific about such policies in its invitation letters, which typically request that reviewers “give this review invitation the same consideration that you would want one of your own manuscripts to receive”.
Push for open review
Charles Oppenheim, a consultant in Aberdeen, UK, who specializes in copyright issues and scholarly publishing, thinks Tennant has a point. “Reviewers should not need to dig around for terms and conditions,” he says. Scholarly publishers, he adds, shouldn’t assume confidentiality; they should make it explicitly clear upfront if their policy is to restrict dissemination of reviews. “If they don’t, they are heading for difficulties as the idea of open peer review is becoming more common.”
Tennant has raised the issue before. In 2015, he debated his rights to share a peer review that he’d conducted for a paper in the Journal of Morphology, published by Wiley. He eventually agreed not to post it online. But after that debate, Wiley revisited its policies, says its editorial director Allyn Molina. “We thought Jon raised some important questions regarding the accessibility of our peer-review guidelines,” she says, adding that the publisher has now made its policy clearer in correspondence to reviewers. (At Wiley, she says, peer review is confidential unless a particular journal has a policy of open review.)
The growing popularity of open peer review is prompting journals to rethink both their policies and the way in which they communicate these to reviewers, says Andrew Preston, the London-based co-founder and chief executive of Publons. Many journals are making clear on Publons what they do — and don’t — allow in terms of sharing reviews, he says. The site is also in discussion with companies, including Nature’s publisher Springer Nature, to figure out other ways of sharing credit for peer-reviewing in cases in which open review isn’t allowed. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of the journal Nature.)
“We’re caught in the middle of people who want very different things,” Preston says. “And while the community will need to find middle ground, it’s good that some people are pushing at the edges.”
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