In 2008, Nature Neuroscience joined a community consortium aimed at making peer review more efficient by allowing reviews to be transferred between consortium journals. We look back at our experience with the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium over the last year.
Last April, Nature Neuroscience announced that it would join the newly established Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium (NPRC) and that we would offer our authors whose papers were no longer under consideration an opportunity to transfer their reviews when submitting their paper to another consortium journal1. The editors of the consortium journals were recently polled to evaluate the success of NPRC over the last year and, surprisingly, most journals reported that only 1–2% of the manuscripts they received had been forwarded from another consortium journal or sent out from the journal to other participants. Our experience with the consortium has not been much different, with only a handful of papers being transferred from Nature Neuroscience to another consortium journal. We will continue our participation in the NPRC for this year and encourage more authors to take advantage of this process.
The NPRC was officially launched in January 2008 with the aim of providing a system that would speed up the review process and reduce the workload for reviewers and editors. Over 33 journals now participate in the consortium (http://nprc.incf.org). Similar to the Nature journals' transfer system, the NPRC system is completely voluntary for authors. Editors at one journal only know that a paper was reviewed elsewhere if the author chooses to inform them. Likewise, referees also have the option of opting out. Many journals in the consortium ask the referees to state at the time of reviewing a paper whether the editors may release their names along with the review in the event that a paper is transferred to another journal. At Nature Neuroscience, the editors contact the referees and ask for their permission to release their identities whenever authors ask for their papers to be transferred to another consortium journal. If a reviewer declines to participate, the reviews (comments to authors only) are transferred anonymously. Comments to editors are never transferred, even when the referee agrees to be identified to the receiving journal. Finally, the editors have full discretion in deciding how to use the transferred reviews.
To date, we have had only a handful of transfers to other member journals (all to the Journal of Neuroscience), representing less than 1% of manuscripts that are eventually rejected after review. However, for the papers that were eventually published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the authors reported that the paper had been expedited. Even in the cases where new referees were solicited, authors felt that transferring the reviews from Nature Neuroscience had saved them both time and labor.
Our experience with the NPRC may be less typical than that of other journals in the consortium (we have had no transfers to Nature Neuroscience, for example), but other journals also saw fewer than expected transfers. David Linden, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology, felt that the effect of NPRC was fairly minor last year, representing less than 2% of total submissions. Moreover, from Linden's experience, many authors were not using the system effectively, with several authors choosing the transfer process when it clearly was not beneficial to them (for example, transferring their paper without making a serious attempt to address the referees' concerns from the earlier round). As a result, the Journal of Neurophysiology found that, in 2008, the accept rate of transferred manuscripts was not much different from that of de novo submissions.
Given the potential savings in time and labor, why are so few authors using the NPRC option? Authors may simply not be aware of NPRC or may not know what journals participate in it. Transfer rates may pick up as more authors learn of the consortium. At Nature Neuroscience, we have noticed an increase in the number of referees that state in comments to the editors whether they wish for their identities to be released to other consortium journals or not, suggesting a growing awareness of the NPRC.
It could also be that there are not that many papers that lend themselves well to this process. Many of our authors who have had papers rejected may prefer to take their chances with new referees at another journal, rather than making substantial revisions in response to the concerns raised by our referees. Certainly, our authors appear to be more conservative when deciding to transfer their reviews, preferentially choosing to utilize the NPRC transfer option when the reviewers reject the paper on conceptual grounds and not for technical reasons.
Another factor that influences the success of the transfer is whether the referees allow the release of their identities to receiving consortium journals. Previous reviews are clearly less useful to the receiving journal if the editors do not know who the reviewers were. Estimates at some consortium journals suggest that 25–30% of reviewers chose to not have their identities revealed to other consortium journals. Although we have had very few transfers to other NPRC journals, only a handful of our referees declined to have their names released. It could be that some referees feel confident releasing their identities when they know exactly which journal the paper is being transferred to, but prefer to opt-out when they are only given the option of ticking a box before submitting their review.
The consortium estimates that only about 10% of rejected manuscripts would be good candidates for NPRC transfers in any case, but it is clear that the current transfer rate remains far lower than expected. It is therefore premature to gauge whether this system truly could save referees, authors and editors substantial time and effort. The members of the NPRC decided last November to extend the life of the consortium by at least another year. We are pleased to continue our participation in the NPRC for 2009 and invite authors who have not yet used the NPRC to try it. We shall evaluate the success of the NPRC and our participation in the consortium on an ongoing basis and we greatly encourage our authors, referees and readers to share their comments with us by emailing the editors directly, or by contacting us at email@example.com.