Who owns peer review?

Following a recent COPE forum discussing who owns peer review, Elizabeth Moylan discusses this topic further and addresses the issues of crediting reviewers for their work, particularly for closed peer review.

Crediting reviewers for their work
Crediting reviewers for their work

Until recently, people haven’t talked much about giving credit to reviewers for undertaking peer review. Peer reviewers simply engaged in the activity (or not) as part of the ‘normal’ process of being in research.

When Sense about Science conducted a survey of 40,000 researchers in 2009, 4000 people responded. 90% said they review because they believe they are playing an active role in the community. The findings are published here.

Developing reviewer acknowledgement

Within the last few years, however, there has been increased focus on developing ways to acknowledge the valuable contribution peer reviewers make. Publons and Academic Karma are both independent service providers aiming to give credit and recognition to peer reviewers.

Others also provide credit as part of the peer review process, for example Peerage of Science give an annual reviewer prize. Publishers play a role too by publishing citable reviewer acknowledgements, lists of the best reviewers or individual reviewer recognition platforms.

However, reviewers themselves want recognition, a finding also echoed in the recent Nuffield Council on Bioethics report into the culture of scientific research in the UK which highlights the need for institutions and funders to recognise the wider activities of researchers.

Issues to consider

Is it ok for a peer reviewer who has engaged in a closed (anonymous) peer review process to post their reviews openly on an independent website after the paper has been published?

As publishers and services like Publons and Academic Karma grapple with how to give credit for peer review (see previous posts here and here), there are some thorny issues to consider. Is it ok for a peer reviewer who has engaged in a closed (anonymous) peer review process (either single-blind or double-blind) to post their reviews openly on an independent website after the paper has been published?

The introduction of open peer review by service providers where the journal and parties involved had originally used a closed peer review process provokes an interesting question: who owns peer review? This was the discussion topic at the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) forum earlier this week.

One view from Publons is that reviewers own their review unless they have explicitly agreed otherwise with the journal they are reviewing for. But others see the review as a form of ‘privileged’ communication (see the comments by Donald Samulack on the forum’s discussion thread).

The fact that reviewers are currently posting reviews (from closed peer review) ‘openly’ to independent sites is prompting publishers to check, and possibly revise, the terms and conditions of their peer review process.

COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers note that reviewers should respect the confidentiality of the peer review process and not reveal details of the manuscript or its review beyond those released by the journal.

Editors raised concerns on behalf of authors who may be unaware when they submit to a journal undertaking closed peer review that the reviewers’ comments may well be posted on a public website later.

Is it fair or useful to post a review ‘warts and all’ when the final published paper has been much revised from the original submitted manuscript? There were also worries that the system could be gamed if people could upload bogus reviews and artificially inflate their reviewer achievements.

Is there an alternative?

The discussion concluded with a reflection on other ways to give credit without disclosing the content of the review. Should publishers play more of a role by providing a centralized site that they add data on individual reviewers to, for example regarding the number, quality and timeliness of their reviews?

Certainly giving credit to reviewers who undertake open peer review where all parties (author, editor and reviewer) have signed up to a transparent peer review process with the reviews published alongside the paper, e.g. GigaScience, is relatively straightforward.

This naturally facilitates credit, especially as pioneered by F1000Research where DOIs are assigned to open peer review reports and linked to a researcher’s ORCID profile. However, many journals do not use an open peer review process, which makes giving credit to their reviewers all the more challenging.

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Janne Seppänen

Elizabeth, thanks for mentioning that *recognition* is what reviewers should get – that is exactly what Peerage of Science does, *not* tallying credits.

And recognition must be proportionate to the value of the work, and that varies HUGELY in peer reviews. That is why I believe any reward system for peer review makes sense only if everyone finally admits that some peer reviews are good (brilliant pieces of science on their own right), some are bad, and some are plain old ugly (careless, biased, ad hominem, fraudulent… I am sure you’ve seen all these, and worse)


That’s just part of the story when you keep in mind that a substantial number of the peer review process is carried out entirely by postdocs and PhD students. Even though, the PIs review the peer review reports before submitting them, how does it stand?

Elizabeth Moylan

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) have produced some ethical guidelines for peer reviewers:

As stated there PIs should not involve anyone else in the peer review process (including postdocs and PhD students they are mentoring) without first obtaining permission from the journal.

When returning the review the names of those who helped should be included so that they are associated with the manuscript for the journal’s records and so that they can also receive credit for their efforts.

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