The peer review system though a touchstone for scientific progress is also a perpetual source of debate and discussion. New and innovative peer review systems have been developed with the aim of speeding up this often laborious and lengthy process, whilst maintaining standards of quality. One such solution is the creation of independent peer review services such as Axios Review. As a supporter of initiatives that aim to improve the peer review process, BioMed Central recently announced a trial partnership with Axios Review – a service that obtains reviews for each manuscript submitted and makes referrals to target journals selected by the authors. Reviewers and handling editors judge the suitability of a manuscript for the targeted journals, in the hope of avoiding endless cycles of repeated rejection and resubmission.
Established by Tim Vines, Axios Review sprung from the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. Here we ask two Editorial Board members of Axios Review – Lauren Buckley from the University of Washington, USA, who is also an Editorial Board member on Climate Change Responses, and Walter Salzburger from the University of Basel, Switzerland who is a former Section Editor on BMC Evolutionary Biology – what makes these research areas particularly amenable to innovative peer review systems, why they chose to engage with Axios Review, and what the reception has been like so far.
What motivated you to join the Editorial Board of Axios Review?
LB: As an editor at several journals, I see much reviewer and editor time spent assessing manuscripts that are scientifically sound but insufficiently novel to be published by the journal. Often the papers are ones that I’ve seen as a reviewer at another journal. The manuscripts hopefully improve through multiple rounds of review at different journals, but there is also a lot of redundancy and wasted time. The prospect of reducing the effort spent reviewing and editing papers as well as the time spent by authors waiting for review and formatting their articles for multiple journals motivated me to join the Editorial Board of Axios Review. The pace of science is likely to improve if the speed of publication does so. Less time spent on the publication process also means more time available for doing science.
WS: When Tim Vines approached me with the invitation to join the Editorial Board of Axios Review (he phoned me while on field-work in East Africa in 2013), I immediately became excited about the project of a peer review system that is somewhat decoupled from scientific journals. The main benefit, from the perspective of both authors and reviewers/editors, is the facilitation of the review process. Many of us are cluttered with review requests, and so for Editorial Board members it is becoming more and more difficult to find willing and thorough referees. I am probably not the only one who feels that the common practice of passing along manuscripts from journal to journal in decreasing order of reputation and/or impact – each time involving reformatting and a new round of peer reviewing – is often equivalent to a waste of time and energy for all parties involved. This trend is counteracted by the Axios Review system, in which authors may specify up to four target journals, and referees – in addition to providing a formal review – are supposed to indicate to which of these journals a manuscript should be referred to (in case of a positive overall evaluation). In principle, authors therefore know after just one round of peer reviewing where their manuscript stands.
What I also like about Axios Review is the easy way of submitting a manuscript, and, in particular, the composition of the Editorial Board, which consists of colleagues that serve/have served as editors in some of the most respected journals in our field. The latter is probably key to the functioning of the Axios Review system, as the target journal’s editors, to which a manuscript is referred to, will have to rely on a proper reviewing process.
Other initiatives that decouple peer review from the journal, such as Peerage of Science, have arisen from the fields of ecology and evolution. Why do you think this is? Are there other fields that you think will soon similarly engage with this?
LB: It is often difficult to assess novelty in ecology and evolution because researchers work on many different, non-model organisms in diverse ecosystems. Something innovative from your perspective may be less so when the manuscript is reviewed by researchers from several sub-fields. I do think other fields will embrace independent peer review. Fields where manuscripts are commonly published on pre-print servers such as math and physics are already engaged in the broader effort to open up peer review and accelerate the speed of science.
WS: Perhaps I am biased but I would like to think of our community as being critical and yet creative. It’s a small enough community to meet at conferences (where regular Editorial Board meetings of several journals are also held) and to come up with new projects, often over a beer – although I don’t know how the ideas for Axios Review and Peerage of Science were actually born. However our community is also large enough to leave room for alternatives, for example, with respect to renowned journals to which we submit our manuscripts.
In comparison to many other areas in the life sciences domain, we are less applied (though still technology driven when it comes to, for example, next-generation DNA sequencing). This opens up more opportunities to interpret and present our data, and we are probably less impact factor driven than the medical life sciences. At least in my small area of expertise, there are a number of cool and highly cited papers in journals of medium impact factor.
Taken together, this seems to facilitate new initiatives such as new approaches to peer review, which, in my opinion, should be of interest to other communities as well. However, it appears that because of different publishing cultures not all initiatives successful in one area or research are adopted by other communities. For example, the arXiv.org platform, more than 20 years after its start, is still restricted to mostly physics, mathematics and computer science (although there’s now bioRxiv).
What has the feedback on Axios Review been like from your field of research?
LB: Axios Review has been welcomed by many researchers, particularly when they experience having their papers rejected by multiple journals following long waits. I hope they will consider using Axios Review to streamline the process for their next publication.
WS: So far the feedback has largely been positive, not least because of the generally good quality of the submissions and the reviews. Although it should be noted that Axios Review is only in its infancy, so more balanced feedback will probably only be possible after more people have tried it out. Most colleagues that I have discussed it with find it a great idea, and I have heard from quite some people that they are thinking about submitting a paper via Axios Review soon.
At least from my point of view, reviewers were fine with also evaluating the potential and suitability of a manuscript for the target journals suggested by the authors. Some journal editors and Editorial Board members have however raised concerns that the Axios Review system, in which authors rank their desired target journals, might ‘cement’ the currently existing rank-order of journals, leaving some of them in a lower impact factor trap. Personally, I do not share this concern, as authors typically have a good feeling about where their papers could potentially go to (and will prepare the manuscripts accordingly taking into account the specific requirements of a journal). I also feel that reviewers and editors are capable of suggesting a target journal based on the general fit of an article rather than based on impact factor. And it remains with the journal editors, of course, to make the final decision. I could imagine that decoupled peer review might prompt some journals to create new manuscript formats or fast-track publishing pipelines to attract ‘better’ manuscripts.
Axios Review recently became the first independent peer review organisation to become a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). How does this inform the process of decoupled peer review at Axios Review?
LB: Axios Review emerged from collective frustration with inefficiencies in the peer review process, so it is important for Axios Review to remain engaged with discussions of peer review. Participation in COPE should help maintain high standards for publication ethics.
WS: A system such as Axios Review certainly requires transparency and integrity towards the authors, the reviewers and especially towards the journal editors, to which the manuscripts are ultimately referred to. COPE provides a solid base for dealing with questions like how to handle conflicts of interest, etc.
Read more about how Axios Review works and its partnership with BioMed Central on this BioMed Central blog.