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Peer review: blind vs open

"I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see"

It has been some time since scientists were capable of reading all of the literature in any given field. The establishment of journals made possible a big increase in the volumes of research. This increase was such that readers were no longer able to scrutinize all of the articles they were interested in reading - at least, not if they wanted to still have time for their own research!

And so it was that the current form of editorial boards and peer review was born. With peer-reviewed articles, readers could have more immediate confidence in what they were reading, which accelerated the rate of scientific progress.

Traditionally, this peer review process has been closed, and blind or double-blind. This is done in principle to solve the problem of conflicts of interest in scientific publishing, but it doesn't solve this problem particularly well - anecdotes abound of vexatious reviewers hiding behind anonymity.

The lack of transparency also has some unfortunate side effects. With no incentives for reviewers, both the quality and timeliness of the peer review process is a constant issue.

You've probably already noticed that we take an entirely different approach at Publons, and make peer reviews completely open, such that both reviewers and the authors are open to public scrutiny. Conflicts of interest such as co-authorship or institutional ties are still reported, and this way viewers can decide for themselves on validity. Others, like PeerJ, are trying a similar approach in journal form.

This approach would have been impossible before the widespread use of the internet, for the reasons of workload and speed mentioned above. But now that technology has rendered it possible, we see the open approach as superior for three very important reasons.

First, open peer review allows for the rapid and accurate ranking of articles based on the evaluations of broad sections of the science community. Rather than relying on the name of the journal to find high impact papers, open peer-review opens up the ability to directly locate articles that are rated highly by the scientific community.

Second, making the reviews visible to the community allows reviewers to be recognized and rewarded for the important work they do. Writing reviews becomes less of a chore and more of an activity that academics can do to display their expertise and advance their careers, which provides an incentive for reviewers to contribute quality reviews in a timely fashion.

Lastly, opening up peer-review helps to re-establish bonds of trust with the public. In the past decade or so there has been a growing trend of 'science denialism.' One of the main complaints against science is the lack of transparency around the peer-review process. Giving the public the level of transparency afforded by open peer review would no doubt go a long way towards building a lasting confidence in science in the minds of the public.

Are there any good arguments for continuing the practice of closed peer review? The move from closed to open is a significant culture shift, but we see it as both inevitable and necessary.

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