Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents

2 Peer review in publishing

11.  Peer review, in the context of publishing, can take place before or after an article is published. The first records of journal pre-publication peer review date back to the 17th century, when the Royal Society's Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, adopted it as editor of the journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.[18] The concept of peer review, however, may be even older. The Syrian physician, Ishaq bin Ali Al Rahwi (AD 854-931) is thought to have first described the concept in his book, Ethics of the Physician.[19] Al Rahwi apparently "encouraged doctors to keep contemporaneous notes on their patients, later to be reviewed by a jury of fellow physicians".[20]

12.  The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) explained that "peer review varies considerably between scientific disciplines; it is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has evolved to meet the needs of individual scientific communities".[21] Peer review originally evolved in a piecemeal and haphazard way and did not become standard practice in publishing until the middle of the 20th century.[22] As pointed out by numerous individuals and organisations, peer review is by no means a perfect system.[23] The Publishers Association described peer review as a system "based on human endeavour" which therefore "cannot be perfect or infallible".[24] Professor John Pethica, Physical Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, surmised: "Given that there is no perfect system, we have to devise a system which optimises the process".[25]

The traditional peer-review process

13.  The key features in the peer-review process in scholarly publishing are summarised in the figure below:

14.  Authors submit a manuscript to their chosen journal, usually via a web-based system. It is not unusual for manuscripts to be sent to a few journals before being accepted for publication, although authors are only allowed—by convention—to send their manuscripts to one journal at a time. Initial in-house checks are carried out by part of the editorial team. These will include basic checks—for completeness and adherence to journal policies, as well as editorial checks—for scope, novelty, quality and interest to journal readership. At this stage, manuscripts may be returned to authors for completion and resubmission if the technical omissions are extensive; in minor cases, authors may just be asked to provide the missing items. Manuscripts can also be rejected at this stage on editorial grounds, without being sent out for external peer review. This decision is made by the journal editors. In some top journals, the rejection rate at this stage can be very high. For example, editors at Nature "reject 70-80% of submitted papers (the exact proportion varies with discipline) on purely editorial grounds".[26] Manuscripts that pass the initial checks are sent to external reviewers, usually two or more. The reviewers assess, and report back to the editors on issues such as:

  • Study design and methodology;
  • Soundness of work and results;
  • Presentation and clarity of data;
  • Interpretation of results;
  • Whether research objectives have been met;
  • Whether a study is incomplete or too preliminary;
  • Novelty and significance;
  • Ethical issues; and
  • Other journal-specific issues.

The reviewers' role at this stage is to provide a critical appraisal, advise and make recommendations on the manuscript. Editors take the final decision as to whether or not to accept the manuscript for publication. The decision is then communicated to the author. This will generally be one of the following: accept; accept with revision (minor or major); reject but encourage resubmission; or reject.


15.  There are three main types of peer review in use. They are: "single-blind review", "double-blind review" and "open review". The Royal Society explained that:

By far the commonest system in use is "single blind" peer review in which the author's name and institution is known to the reviewer, but the reviewer's name is not provided to the author.

A number of journals instead choose to operate a "double blind" peer review system which is fully anonymised (i.e. the author(s) are unaware of the identity of the reviewer(s) and vice versa).

Recently, there have been some experiments with a third type, "open" peer review, in which the authors' and reviewers' names are revealed to each other. […] Open peer review can be reasonably described as an experimental system at this stage and is far from common.[27]

16.  During the course of this inquiry we heard that the Institute of Physics (IOP), the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) use single-blind review.[28] The publisher, John Wiley & Sons, also primarily uses single-blind review.[29] It is the commonest system in scientific journals. In the social sciences, peer review "is almost invariably a double-blind process".[30] Some journals, such as the BMJ, choose to use open peer review.[31]

17.  The BMJ Group explained that:

Responses to a 2009 survey of more than 4000 science reviewers suggest, however, that reviewers prefer anonymity: 76% favoured the double blind system where only the editor knows who the reviewers and authors are.[32]

This built on a 2007 survey of around 3000 academics and editors around the world (of whom about 10% worked in UK [Higher Education Institutions] and 18% were working in clinical medicine or nursing) which found relatively little support for open review as an alternative to single- or double-blinded review.[33]

18.  It is sometimes suggested that bias in the peer-review process (see paragraphs 42-43) could be reduced by using the double-blind approach.[34] However, Dr Nicola Gulley, Editorial Director at IOP Publishing Ltd, explained that this is not always practical:

Some of the research communities that I work with particularly are very small, so doing double-blind refereeing where neither the author nor the referee knows who each other is defeats the object because, generally, the referees will know who the author is from the subject area that they are working in or from the references and things like that. It varies very much between different subject areas.[35]

Others also acknowledged the problem of authors guessing the names of reviewers and vice versa in double-blind peer review.[36]

19.  Dr Liz Wager, Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), told us that COPE does not recommend one system or another. The reason given was that:

some editors have said to us, "We work in a very narrow field. Everybody knows everybody else. It just would not work to have this open peer review." There are different options. […] My opinion is that it depends on the discipline. With a discipline as big as medicine, where there are hundreds of thousands of people all around the world you can ask and they probably don't bump into each other the next day, open peer review seems to work. In much narrower and more specialised fields, it perhaps does not, and the traditional system of the blinded review is perhaps better.[37]

20.  We conclude that different types of peer review are suitable to different disciplines and research communities. We consider that publishers should ensure that the communities they serve are satisfied with their choice of peer-review methodology. Publishers should keep them updated on new developments and help them experiment with different systems they feel may be beneficial.

Assessing manuscripts

21.  The core of the traditional peer-review process is the critical appraisal of the work and its reporting. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) explained that:

It is helpful to divide [peer review's] functions into two broad areas: technical and impact assessment. Whereas technical assessment tends to be objective and provides greater confidence in (although cannot assure) the reliability of published findings, impact assessment is subjective and its role is less clear-cut.[38]

22.  The value of the technical assessment is seldom questioned. Dr Michaela Torkar, Editorial Director at BioMed Central, was of the view that:

It is fairly straightforward to think about scientific soundness because it should be the fundamental goal of the peer review process that we ensure all the publications are well controlled, that the conclusions are supported and that the study design is appropriate.[39]

We also heard from a number of witnesses that there is evidence that many authors feel that peer review improves the quality of the articles that they publish.[40]

23.  Questions are, however, often raised about the impact assessment. The impact assessment can be thought of as the means by which an editorial decision is taken to publish or not publish a manuscript. It is based on various factors, for example, whether the subject of the manuscript will be of interest to the journal readership or whether the research is perceived to represent a ground-breaking discovery. Dr Nicola Gulley of the IOP explained that peer review in this respect acts as a "filter", helping scientists find the information that is of interest to them.[41] Dr Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing at the PLoS, explained the scale of the current situation:

About 1.5 million [peer-reviewed] articles are published every year. Before any of them are published, they are sorted into 25,000 different journals. So the journals are like a massive filtering and sorting process that goes on before publication. The question we have been thinking about is whether that is the right way to organise research.[42]

24.  Professor Teresa Rees CBE, former Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cardiff University, added that:

We have an expanding number of journals [...] and there is increasing pressure to publish. I think there is a question of whether academics can keep up with reading all the material in the growing number of journals. One might want to have a debate at some stage about whether that is the most effective and efficient way of managing all the potential research that can be published.[43]

25.  Published research is currently organised and sorted into thousands of journals. The impact or perceived importance of a published article is often judged by the "Impact Factor" of the journal in which it appears. A journal's Impact Factor is calculated annually by Thomson Reuters. It is "a measure of the frequency with which the 'average article' in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period".[44] It is, however, a measure of the journal and not of each individual article. It should also be noted that there are many peer-reviewed journals which are not indexed by Thomson Reuters and therefore do not have an Impact Factor; the Thomson Reuters 2010 Journal Citation Reports contains data for 10,196 journals.[45] Impact Factors and high-impact journals are covered in more detail in paragraph 59.

26.  The question that arises when assessing the merits of the impact assessment made during the peer-review process is: how do journal editors or reviewers judge whether a particular piece of work is important? Professor Ian Walmsley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford, told us that this was "a very difficult thing to do".[46] He added that:

In many ways [impact] is something best assessed post facto; that is, the impact of this work is: how many other people find it a fruitful thing on which to build? How many people find it a productive way to direct their research as a consequence?[47]

Dr Rebecca Lawrence, Director of New Product Development at Faculty of 1000 Ltd, agreed that:

often it is not known immediately how important something is. In fact, it takes quite a while to understand its impact. Also, what is important to some people may not be to others. A small piece of research may be very important if you are working in that key area. Therefore, the impact side of it is very subjective.[48]

Dr Michaela Torkar of BioMed Central was also of the opinion that "the assessment of what is important can be quite subjective".[49]

27.  Dr Mark Patterson, from PLoS, gave his view on the traditional process and how things may begin to change:

Traditionally, technical assessment and impact assessment are wrapped up in a single process that happens before publication. We think there is an opportunity and, potentially, a lot to be gained from decoupling these two processes into processes best carried out before publication and those better left until after publication. […] There are benefits to focusing on just the technical assessment before publication and the impact assessment after publication. That becomes possible because of the medium that we have to use now. The 25,000 journal system is basically one that has evolved and adapted in a print medium. Online we have the opportunity to rethink, completely, how that works. Both [technical and impact assessment] are important, but we think that, potentially, they can be decoupled.[50]

28.  Dr Malcolm Read OBE, Executive Secretary of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), agreed that "separating the two is important because of the time scale over which you get your answer".[51]

29.  The importance of a pre-publication technical assessment is clear to us. It should be a fundamental aim of the peer-review process that all publications are scientifically sound. Assessing the impact or perceived importance of research before it is published will always require subjective judgement and mistakes will inevitably be made. We welcome new approaches that focus on carrying out a technical assessment prior to publication and making an assessment of impact after publication.

Common criticisms

30.  As explained in paragraph 12, peer review is by no means a perfect system. Professor Sir John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, stated that:

If you posed the question, "Is the peer review process fundamentally flawed?" I would say absolutely not. If you asked, "Are there flaws in the peer review process which can be appropriately drawn to the attention of the community?" the answer is yes.[52]

However, as pointed out by Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of BMJ Group, "we have to acknowledge that there is a huge variety in the quality of peer review across the publishing sector".[53] Though there is variation in quality across the publishing sector, it is important to note that "peer review is independent of the business model applied to the journal".[54] In particular, we heard that "it is terribly important to put to bed the misconception that open access [see paragraph 79] somehow does not use peer review. If it is done properly, it uses peer review very well".[55] In this section we explore some of the common criticisms of the peer-review process.


31.  A common criticism of peer review is that in some cases "there may be a tendency towards conservative judgements".[56] The UK Research Integrity Office Ltd (see paragraph 254) went so far as to suggest that "there is a danger that the peer-review process can stifle innovation and perpetuate the status quo".[57] In response to this, Dr Malcolm Read, JISC, stated: "that sounds a bit overstated as peer review, in one form or another, has been an underpinning aspect of research—arguably, even before journals as we know them existed".[58]

32.  Dr Gulley from IOP Publishing Ltd told us that "there is more conservatism in some research areas than there is in other areas".[59] Professor Ron Laskey, Vice President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, elaborated with an example:

It can be more difficult to establish a novel and completely unexpected new branch of science if editors of journals are not alert to the fact that it is coming. There are one or two recent examples. One that springs to mind is a study in plant sciences which concerned resistance to viral infection in plants. That has given rise to a completely new area of understanding of a group of molecules that turn out to be important in all cells, not just in viral defence mechanisms against plants but because they change fundamentally in certain types of cancer. That was a small niche of advance that has suddenly become a front-line subject, but it would have been very difficult to publish that in a front-line journal at the time the work was being done.[60]

33.  Dr Robert Parker, Interim Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), added that "knowing the right people to ask about research that looks slightly different" was important in the peer review of unexpected or unusual research.[61] He added that the RSC "found, from doing studies on the articles that we reject, that most of them end up being published somewhere else. There are very few articles that we receive that are scientifically completely wrong. Usually, there is some merit in them".[62] Dr Malcolm Read, JISC, agreed, stating that this "cuts against the conservatism".[63]

34.  Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature and Nature Publishing Group, expressed the view that Nature was open to bold new research. He told us that Nature "would love to publish something that strongly made a provocative case […] that is not because we want to be sensationalist but because […] it needs to be out there and we would like to be the place to publish it".[64]

35.  Robert Campbell, Senior Publisher at Wiley-Blackwell, agreed that it was not in a journal's best interest to be overly conservative. He stated that:

If you have a very conservative editorial board, the journal will suffer. It is a market; the more proactive entrepreneurial editorial teams will win out and build better, more successful journals. It is a very dynamic market. A conservative editorial board wouldn't last long.[65]

36.  Publishers are becoming increasingly more entrepreneurial and innovative. Authors now have the option of avoiding a conservative editorial judgement on provocative research by submitting their manuscript to one of an increasing number of online repository-type journals, such as PLoS ONE. These journals assess only the technical merit of the manuscript and are discussed in more detail in paragraphs 79-89.

37.  However, it is not always simply an issue of the research being too "provocative". Dr Philip Campbell, Nature, explained that:

sometimes [bold new claims] are too easily said and not backed up well enough. A journal, which also has a magazine role in Nature, has one of the most critical audiences in the world. They love to be stimulated but they also want to make damned sure that the evidence on which we base the stuff we publish is reasonably strong.[66]

As the Royal Society summarised, it seems that "in general, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence".[67] That is, a piece of research with potentially controversial impact would likely be more rigorously tested than research making a lesser claim.

38.  Dr Philip Campbell, Nature, expanded on the need to rigorously assess research:

Another use of the word "conservative" concerns robustness. For us, peer review helps us deliver robust publications. We, at Nature, if anything, are more conservative than other journals. We make researchers go the extra mile to demonstrate what they are saying. I also celebrate the fact that we do not want to be conservative with papers that go against the status quo. We want to encourage radical discoveries.[68]

39.  Dr Godlee, BMJ Group, agreed that "conservatism is not a bad thing in science or medicine in terms of making sure that what we publish is robust, relevant and properly quality controlled".[69]


40.  In addition to a perceived bias toward conservative judgements, Dr Liz Wager explained that "there are other kinds of biases as well, but a well set-up system and a good editor will minimise those biases".[70]

41.  Professor Teresa Rees described the problem of gender bias in peer review:

Do people operate with a preconceived notion of quality? There is a whole series of studies about this. For example, evidence from the States suggests that if John Mackay or Jean Mackay submits an article it will be peer reviewed more favourably if it is by John Mackay. There is a whole series of papers to that effect. How do we deal with this? I add that this is discriminatory behaviour by both men and women. It seems to me that in the selection of reviewers to serve on research council boards, journals or promotion panels we need transparency so that people can apply and be assessed against merits to gain those positions, and we need turnover so it is not the same people doing that assessment for 20 or 30 years. We might want […] double-blind reviewing so you don't know the sex.[71]

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) also acknowledged the problem of bias but added that "the evidence is not clear-cut and, in some cases, is contradictory".[72]

42.  Professor Teresa Rees highlighted another similar problem: that of "unconscious bias against people with foreign-sounding names". She stated that:

Brazil's science minister is very concerned about this and has encouraged academics there to co-author with people from the US or Europe who may have a surname that is more familiar to reviewers. Double-blind marking would deal with that unconscious bias that affects peer reviewers as it does any other member of the public.[73]

43.  The BMJ Group added that studies have shown peer review to also be systematically biased against authors' ideas, reputations and locations.[74] The use of double-blind peer review is one way to minimise bias, but there are practical issues relating to its use, as described in paragraph 18. COPE explained that "it is probably impossible to eliminate all bias from peer review but good editors endeavour to minimize it".[75] The role of the editor is further explored in chapter 3.

Poor assessment of multidisciplinary work

44.  It has also been suggested that peer review is biased against multidisciplinary research.[76] The Society for General Microbiology and the John Innes Centre expressed the concern that with the rise in multidisciplinary research it may sometimes be difficult to find reviewers with the right skills and expertise needed to assess multidisciplinary projects.[77]

45.  Both PLoS and the UK Research Integrity Office Ltd (UKRIO) recommended that if the work is multidisciplinary, it may be necessary to seek the opinions of a larger number of reviewers.[78] This is the approach taken by the Royal Society, as described by Professor John Pethica:

The process in the [Royal] Society is, essentially, to increase greatly the number of referees and reviewers. Six or seven would be common, whereas two or three might be the number you would have within a well-defined subject, to try and ensure you get that coverage for a number of broad views. […] In general, one is obliged to do that simply because there may be a few people who have the vast and broad knowledge required, but in truly interdisciplinary areas, which really span gaps, you have to get a broad perspective and that means using more people, including from a variety of countries, environments and so forth.[79]


46.  Another common criticism of peer review is that it is expensive. In 2008, a Research Information Network report estimated that the unpaid non-cash costs of peer review, undertaken in the main by academics, is £1.9 billion globally each year .[80] In 2010, a report commissioned by JISC Collections brought together evidence from a number of studies.[81] It concluded that it costs UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), in terms of staff time, between £110 million and £165 million per year for peer review and up to £30 million per year for the work done by editors and editorial boards.[82] The BMJ Group pointed out that "peer reviewers are rarely paid by publishers, and their work is often done out of hours".[83] The financial and personal burden on reviewers is discussed below.

47.  The cost of peer review does not, however, fall solely on reviewers and HEIs. Elsevier explained that "publishers have [also] made significant investments into the peer review system to improve [its] efficiency, speed, and quality".[84] We explored this in further detail with Mayur Amin, Senior Vice President of Research & Academic Relations at Elsevier, who told us that:

Overall, one of the biggest investments for everyone in the publishing industry in the last decade or so has been migration to some of the electronic platforms. Across the industry, our estimate is that somewhere in the order of £2 billion of investment has been made. That includes the technologies at the back end to publish the materials as well. The technology has included submission systems, electronic editorial systems, peer review support systems, tracking systems and systems that enable editors to find reviewers.[85]

48.  Elsevier later explained that the £2 billion estimate was based on a detailed review of Elsevier's own technology investments (£600 million between 2000 and 2010), which were then extrapolated to the entire industry.[86] The areas of investment are summarised in the table below:
Technology investment areas (2000-2010) Industry estimate
Author submission & editorial systems >£70m
e-journals and reference works back files >£150m
Production Tracking Systems >£50m
Electronic Warehousing >£60m
Electronic Publishing Platforms, incl. search and discovery platforms >£1500m
Other related back-office and cross-industry systems. e.g. digital preservation, Crossref for linking, CrossCheck for plagiarism detection, creation of special font sets, development of technical standards >£300m

Data provided by Elsevier[87]


49.  Related to cost issues is criticism of the perceived burden on academics involved in the peer-review process, particularly in the role of reviewer. Vitae, the UK organisation championing the personal, professional and career development of doctoral researchers and research staff, stated that:

Most researchers will experience both authoring and reviewing papers during their careers and therefore have a vested interest in the system being as robust, ethical and equitable as possible. [...] There is an expectation that researchers will contribute to sustaining the peer review system by participating as reviewers. This is predominantly without financial or formal recognition, except for members of editorial boards (or grant review panels). [Peer review] is rarely acknowledged as part of the formal workload of an academic researcher. [...] Reviewing is often an 'out of normal hours' activity and therefore adds additional burdens on researchers [...] 'Good' reviewers are more likely to be invited to do more reviewing, thereby adding to their workloads.[88]

The "burden" on peer reviewers is discussed in more detail in chapter 3.


50.  Despite these criticisms, the disappearance of pre-publication peer review tomorrow would represent a "danger" to the scientific record.[89] Research Councils UK stated that "the strengths of peer review far outweigh the weaknesses".[90] Professor Ron Laskey of the Academy of Medical Sciences informed us that in the absence of peer review a "particular problem" in the biomedical sciences would be "sorting the wheat from the chaff and knowing what information could be depended on".[91] Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, used the analogy of a "sea of material" that needs to be sorted, one way or another.[92] She added that:

The important thing with a system that produces 1.3 million papers a year is that it is self-reflective. A lot of study goes on […] looking at the fate of papers that aren't published and looking, just generally, at trends across the system. So long as that is going on and patterns of behaviour can be spotted, then the system can be self-correcting.[93]

51.  Sir Mark Walport highlighted a recent study by the Wellcome Trust:

We do conduct studies of peer review. The Wellcome Trust published a paper in PLoS ONE a couple of years ago in which we took a cohort of papers that had been published. We post-publication peer-reviewed them and then we watched to see how they behaved against the peer review in bibliometrics. There was a pretty good correlation, although there were differences. Experiments of one sort or another are always going on.[94]

David Sweeney, Director for Research, Innovation and Skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), added that:

Through [HEFCE's] funding of JISC and […] the Research Information Network, much work has been carried out [looking at peer review] and we remain interested in further work being carried out where the objectives are clear.[95]

52.  The BMJ Group, however, was of the view that "little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review".[96] The little evidence there is on editorial peer review is inconclusive.[97] Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, explained that Tom Jefferson and colleagues concluded in their review of the evidence that:

"Editorial peer review, although widely used, is largely untested and its effects are uncertain". [Jefferson and colleagues] went on, "Given the widespread use of peer review and its importance, it is surprising that so little is known of its effects."[98]

53.  In a recent article in the journal, Breast Cancer Research, Dr Richard Smith, former Editor of the BMJ, referred to a quote by Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who once said "'If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market".[99] Dr Smith added:

not only do scientists know little about the evidence on peer review but most continue to believe in peer review, thinking it essential for the progress of science. Ironically, a faith based rather than an evidence based process lies at the heart of science.[100]

54.  COPE, however, noted that:

lack of evidence of efficacy is not the same as saying there is evidence that it does not work. Peer review is difficult to study, partly because its functions have not always been clearly defined.[101]

55.  Dr Godlee, BMJ Group, suggested a way forward:

The overall level of evaluation of peer review is very poor [...] The UK could lead on [a programme of research]. Funding [for this] should come from [...] a combination of the journal publishing world, the grant-giving world, industry, but also public funding.[102]

56.  Professor Rick Rylance told us that Research Councils UK "would be open to trying to think about how that might be researched".[103] However, when we asked Professor Sir Adrian Smith, Director General of Knowledge and Innovation in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), whether there was a need for a programme of research to test the evidence for justifying the use and optimisation of peer review in evaluating science, he responded:

The short answer is no. [Peer review] is an essential part of the scientific process, the scientific sociology and scientific organisation that scientists judge each other's work. It is the way that science works. You produce ideas and you get them challenged by those who are capable of challenging them. You modify them and you go round in those kinds of circles. I don't see how you could step outside of the community itself and its expertise to do anything other.[104]

57.  In summary, the peer-review process, as used by most traditional journals prior to publication, is not perfect. We have heard that there are a number of criticisms of it, including that: it has a tendency towards publishing conservative research (although this should not be confused with robustness); it does not adequately guard against bias; it is expensive; and it represents a huge burden on researchers. Despite these criticisms editorial peer review is viewed by many as important. However, there is little solid evidence on its efficacy.

58.  We recommend that publishers, research funders and the users of research outputs (such as industry and Government) work together to identify how best to evaluate current peer-review practices so that they can be optimised and innovations introduced, and the impact of the common criticisms of peer review minimised. We consider that this would also help address any differences in the quality of peer review that exist. We encourage increased recognition that peer-review quality is independent of journal business model, for example, there is a "misconception that open access somehow does not use peer review".

High-impact journals

59.  Impact Factor was defined in paragraph 25 as "a measure of the frequency with which the "average article" in a journal has been cited in a particular year or period".[105] As we have noted, a journal's Impact Factor is calculated annually by Thomson Reuters and it often serves as a proxy measure for the impact or perceived importance of an article published in that journal. As such, publishing in a high-impact journal is traditionally perceived to represent a big achievement and is often used as a proxy measure for assessing both the work of researchers and research institutions. This is discussed in further detail in paragraphs 165-177.

60.  Elsevier told us that approximately 3 million manuscripts are submitted to journals every year. Of these, around half are rejected. It explained that "rejection rates vary by journal, for example titles such as Cell and The Lancet, which have extremely high publication impact […] have rejection rates of 95%".[106] We questioned a group of publishers about why rejection rates are so high. Dr Andrew Sugden, Deputy Editor and International Managing Editor at Science (where more than 90% of the submissions are rejected),[107] explained that:

Part of it is simply that they are weekly magazines with a print budget. We are publishing 20 papers […] a week, and a lot of people want to be published in them. We are receiving 10 times as many, roughly. […] We want to showcase the best across the range of fields in which we publish, so we have to be highly selective to do that.[108]

61.  Dr Philip Campbell of Nature suggested that as journals increase their presence online and the prospect of the decline of print journals happens, the "pressure is lessened".[109] He added, however, that Nature would probably still publish the same number of papers.[110] Dr Fiona Godlee, BMJ Group, agreed that printing journals is no longer a constraint, but explained that editorial resource is.[111] She added that journals often find that "if they reduce the number of research papers they publish, their Impact Factor creeps up quicker. That is a commercial reputational issue".[112]

62.  While high Impact Factors may be good for journals, the British Antarctic Survey told us that authors are known to complain that "for the very high profile journals with high Impact Factors, competition for space is fierce, and decisions about which papers are accepted can seem rather random".[113] It noted, however that:

these decisions are often editorial ones based on topicality, and not on peer review; and […] papers rejected from such journals will generally be published elsewhere. If they are of sufficient importance this will usually be recognised by high citation numbers wherever they are published.[114]

The need to publish in high-impact journals and the effect this has on researchers and research careers is discussed in paragraphs 165-177.

63.  Authors are faced with a vast range of journals in which to publish if they fail to get into a high-impact journal. We were told that peer review "has led to the development of a pecking order for journals".[115] Manuscripts that are rejected from a high-impact journal will often make their way down the pecking order until they find a home in a journal. This can be a time-consuming process; at each stage the manuscript is first assessed by editors who determine whether it fits the scope of the journal before potentially being sent out for external peer review. Dr Godlee explained that:

increasingly people are going straight into one of the big open access journals, such as PLoS ONE. […] A lot of the publishers are beginning to open up so that people can get speedy publication if they haven't got into the journal of their choice. That is a good thing. That means we will see authors being able to move on to the next thing rather than spending a lot of their time adapting a paper for yet another journal which is going to reject it and then move on.[116]

64.  The PLoS ONE journal model is discussed in further detail in paragraphs 79-89. Another method for reducing the burden of resubmitting rejected manuscripts to new journals, with fresh rounds of review, is the cascading system of review, which is covered in paragraphs 146-152.

Innovation in peer review

65.  Deviations from the traditional peer-review process have been experimented with over recent years, some more successfully than others. In this section we discuss three well-known examples: pre-print servers; experiments in open peer review; and the move towards repository journals.


66.  An innovative approach to peer review that has worked well for the physics community is the use of a pre-print server. Dr Nicola Gulley of IOP Publishing Ltd explained that the "arXiv" pre-print server was set up to allow authors to submit work that is "at a very preliminary stage".[117] The physics community is then able to access this work and comment on it. Dr Gulley explained that arXiv:

originated from the high energy physics area where they had a need to be able to discuss the results across the international collaborations. A lot of the work that is posted, particularly from areas such as high energy physics, also goes through internal peer review within the research facilities as well before it is posted.[118]

67.  Some of the benefits of the arXiv system were described by the Royal Society: it "allows the scientists to publish research quickly and get informal feedback and identify any weaknesses. This is then followed by formal peer review in a journal".[119] Dr Gulley explained that "a high percentage of articles that are pre-prints are eventually submitted to journals and get published in journals […] so there is still that requirement for the independent peer review".[120] She added that:

We make it very easy for authors to be able to submit from the arXiv into our journals, for example, and this is common across many physics publishers, where the arXiv number can be used when submitting the article to a journal. Authors are encouraged to update their versions as well. From the publishing side, we encourage them to update the citations so that the link goes back to the final version of record once it has been peer reviewed and published.[121]

68.  The IOP provided further details of how it makes this easy for authors:

Within our online submission form there is an option for authors to enter their arXiv reference number when they submit the article to be considered for publication. This number enables us to locate the article in question and automatically upload the files from arXiv to our peer review system for processing.[122]

69.  While physics publishers are clearly well linked into the arXiv server and it appears to be a system that works well for the physics community, it is not necessarily the best model for all disciplines. Dr Robert Parker of the RSC told us that this system was "not popular with chemistry because there is very often the possibility that an author will take out a patent on what they are producing. Putting your results out there in a pre-printed form is risking losing priority on them".[123] Professor Ron Laskey indicated that a pre-print server would also not be suitable for biomedical sciences.[124] He described two worries from the Academy of Medical Sciences submission to this inquiry:

One is that biomedical sciences are more prone to inaccurate interpretations […] There is a worry that, if you extended the pre-publication model to the biomedical sciences without any attempt to peer review, a lot of half-truths would creep into the literature.

The second problem is the appetite of the media for some aspects of biomedical science. Without peer review we would get a storm, frankly, of incorrect headlines.[125]

70.  Sir Mark Walport, from the Wellcome Trust, reinforced Professor Laskey's point:

One of the issues in the biological sciences is that the volume of research is extremely high. An important issue in the medical sciences is that an ill-performed study can have harmful consequences for patients. Therefore, there need to be filtering mechanisms to make sure that things are not published that are, frankly, wrong, misconceived, the evidence is bad and conclusions are drawn which means that patients could be harmed. Different communities require slightly different models.[126]

71.  Professor John Pethica of the Royal Society suggested that pure mathematics is a "good example of an area" which might benefit from the pre-print server model because "it can take a very long time for the assessment of theorems to become correct".[127] He added that this was in contrast with areas such as engineering, where there is an immediate technological impact.[128]

72.  We conclude that pre-print servers can be an effective way of allowing researchers to share and get early feedback on preliminary research. The system is well established in the physics community, and works particularly well, co-existing with more traditional publication in journals. We encourage exploration in other fields. We note, however, that pre-print servers may not work in fields where commercialisation and patentability are issues, or in the biomedical sciences, where publication of badly performed studies could have harmful consequences and could be open to misinterpretation.


73.  Open peer review has traditionally been defined as review in which the authors' and reviewers' names are revealed to each other. This system has been used successfully by the BMJ for more than a decade with no significant problems.[129] BMJ Group told us that:

PLoS Medicine, however, tried and then discontinued this practice in late 2007 citing reviewers' reluctance to sign their reports—perhaps because at that time it was publishing a lot of laboratory-based research, which is arguably more competitive than clinical research.[130]

74.  A more recent and much broader definition can also cover cases where: reviewers' names are publicly disclosed; the reviews are also published; and/or the community can take part or comment. Dr Philip Campbell explained the well-known Nature experiment in open peer review:

In 2006, Nature ran an experiment in open peer review, in which over a period of four months, submitting authors were invited to post their papers on an open website for open assessment by peers. Their papers were also peer-reviewed in the usual way.

[…] In brief, the take-up by authors was low, as was the amount of open commenting. Furthermore it was judged by the editors that the comments added little to the assessment of the paper.

It is my view, consistent with this outcome, that scientists are much better motivated to comment on an interesting paper when directly requested to do so by an editor.[131]

As a result, Nature chose not to adopt the widespread implementation of open peer review.[132]

75.  Elsevier described the process operated by another journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, that uses an innovative type of open peer review:

Following initial review by an editor to assess alignment with the title's coverage the manuscript is published online (usually two to eight weeks after submission). Comments and discussion by members of the public and select reviewers then take place for an eight-week period. The author responds to comments within four weeks, and then prepares a final revised article. The editor then decides whether to accept the paper. The original paper, comments, and final paper are all permanently archived and remain accessible. Other than comments from invited reviewers, spontaneous comments from members of the scientific community have been relatively low.[133]

76.  The "transparent" approach, used by the EMBO Journal, which is published by the Nature Publishing Group, features "the online display of anonymized referees and editors/authors' correspondence after publication, alongside the paper",[134] provided as a "Peer Review Process File".[135] However, Dr Philip Campbell informed us that:

Nature and the Nature journals have so far not gone down this route. This reluctance is partly based on a precautionary fear that it might upset the relationship between editors and referees. Moreover, the documents reflect only a part of the process of discussions within the editorial team, between the editors and the referees, and between the editors and the authors. There is also a belief that few people will want to wade through this copious information.

Nevertheless, transparency has its own virtues, and we are keeping this policy under review.[136]

The BioMed Central medical journals also provide this sort of "pre-publication history".[137] Dr Michaela Torkar, from BioMed Central, told us that this was "a very transparent way of seeing how the system works and the sort of records we keep".[138]

77.  Others are now also seeing the virtues of transparency, particularly where issues have arisen relating to dissatisfaction with reviews. A recent example of this was the open letter by 14 leading stem cell researchers to senior editors of peer-reviewed journals publishing in their field:

Peer review is the guardian of scientific legitimacy and should be both rigorous and constructive. Indeed most scientists spend considerable time and thought reviewing manuscripts. As authors we have all benefited from insightful referee reports that have improved our papers. We have also on occasion experienced unreasonable or obstructive reviews.

We suggest a simple step that would greatly improve transparency, fairness and accountability; when a paper is published, the reviews, response to reviews and associated editorial correspondence could be provided as Supplementary Information, while preserving anonymity of the referees.[139]

The letter went on to urge adoption of the EMBO Journal model.

78.  The principles of openness and transparency in open peer review are attractive, and it is clear that there is an increasing range of possibilities. There are mixed results in terms of acceptance amongst researchers and publishers, although some researchers are keen to see greater transparency in their fields. We encourage publishers to experiment with the various models of open peer review and transparency and actively engage researchers in taking part.


79.  The constraints of print journals and the challenges associated with authors striving to publish in high-impact journals have been described in paragraphs 59-64. Authors are now able to submit their manuscripts to one of an increasing number of online repository-type journals. One such example is the journal, PLoS ONE, published by the "open access" publisher, the Public Library of Science (PLoS). "Open access" is defined as the removal of all barriers (for example, subscription costs) to access and reuse of the literature. To provide open access, PLoS journals use a business model in which expenses are recovered "in part by charging a publication fee to the authors or research sponsors for each article they publish".[140] This model is potentially open to abuse if the peer-review process is not robust and if publishers view it mostly as a revenue-generating venture.[141] However, in the case of PLoS ONE, the goal is to publish "all rigorous science",[142] placing an "emphasis on research validity over potential impact".[143] The Wellcome Trust stated that:

The approach adopted by PLoS ONE—where the peer review process focuses solely on whether the findings and conclusions are justified by the results and methodology presented, rather than on assessment of the relative importance of the research or perceived level of interest it will generate—has both reduced the burden on the reviewer and the time it takes to get a paper published.[144]

80.  Dr Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing at PLoS, explained that "PLoS ONE was launched in December 2006, [it] published about 4,000 articles in 2009 and 6,700 last year, so it became the biggest peer-reviewed journal in existence in four years".[145] The popularity of PLoS ONE has spurred the launch of a host of similar journals, as described by Dr Patterson:

The American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society have both launched physical science versions; Sage has launched a social science version; the BMJ group, who were actually the first, last year launched a clinical research version of PLoS ONE; Nature has launched a natural science version of PLoS ONE, and on it goes. The model is getting that level of endorsement from major publishers and I think, again, that is probably helping to make researchers very comfortable with the way in which PLoS ONE works.[146]

81.  He added that:

if another 10, 20 or 30 of these are launched over the next one to two years, which I think is quite likely […] that could make some fairly substantial changes in the way the pre—publication peer review process works. […] The benefit will be the acceleration of research communication because you avoid bouncing from one journal to another until you eventually get published. That is a tremendous potential benefit.[147]

82.  Professor Ron Laskey, from the Academy of Medical Sciences, explained that:

initially, people envisaged PLoS ONE as a journal they would submit to only if their paper was having severe criticism from other higher impact journals. Now, important research has been submitted to get it on the record quickly before it is scooped by someone else who has a smoother path through the refereeing jungle.[148]

83.  Dr Philip Campbell, of Nature, added that:

there are people who are sick to death of editors and who value something like [PLoS ONE, or in Nature's case] Scientific Reports, which have […] no editorial threshold but do have a peer review process just for the validity aspect.[149]

84.  Dr Patterson explained in further detail the way in which PLoS ONE achieved quicker publication times than traditional journals:

the real benefit in PLoS ONE, which is relevant to speed, is that authors won't be asked to revise their manuscripts to raise them up a level or two. With a lot of journals, you get asked to do more experiments to raise it up to the standard that particular journal wants. That doesn't and shouldn't happen at PLoS ONE. As long as the work is judged to be rigorous, it is fine. The amount of revision can be quite a lot less because authors are asked to do it in that way and that can really reduce the overall time from submission to publication.

There is another way in which I think PLoS ONE accelerates research communication generally. Often, articles are submitted to journal A and are rejected as not being up to standard. They go to journal B and then journal C and, eventually, are published. If you have a robust piece of work it will be published in PLoS ONE as long as it passes the criteria for publication. You will not have to fight with editors who are trying to argue for a certain standard. I think those two other things really have the potential to accelerate research communication broadly.[150]

85.  The speed between submission, acceptance and publication has led to some commentators suggesting that the PLoS ONE peer-review process is "light".[151] Dr Patterson was asked whether he would describe it as "light touch" and replied "no, not at all", and then went on to describe the peer-review process at PLoS ONE.[152] The Wellcome Trust also defended the peer-review process used by PLoS ONE:

PLoS ONE has very good peer review. Sometimes there is a confusion between open access publishing and peer review. Open access publishing uses peer review in exactly the same way as other journals. PLoS ONE is reviewed. They have a somewhat different set of criteria, so the PLoS ONE criteria are not, "Is this in the top 5% of research discoveries ever made?" but, "Is the work soundly done? Are the conclusions of the paper supported by the experimental evidence? Are the methods robust?" It is a well peer-reviewed journal but it does not limit its publication to those papers that are seen to be stunning advances in new knowledge.[153]

86.  PLoS ONE publishes 69% of its submissions.[154] However, Dr Patterson explained that this does not necessarily mean that 31% are rejected.[155] He told us:

Some of them are "lost" in the sense that they may be sent back for revision—maybe 5% to 10% are sent back for revision—and the others are rejected, as they should be, on the grounds that they don't satisfy technical requirements. […] We did some author research in the last couple of years and we have seen that, in both cases, according to the authors' responses, about 40% of rejected manuscripts have been accepted for publication in another journal.[156]

87.  There has also been speculation about the level of copyediting that occurs at PLoS ONE. Richard Poynder, a journalist with an interest in publishing, wrote:

PLoS ONE does not copyedit [this is the work that an editor does to improve the formatting, language and accuracy of text] the papers it publishes, only the abstracts. But it would appear that even this minimal service is not always provided. [...]When I contacted [Peter] Binfield [PLoS ONE Publisher] [...] he said: "Speaking for PLoS ONE we do not copyedit content (other than a very light clean up). We do a light (but real) copyedit on the abstract; and at time of submission one of our (many) Quality Control checks is on the quality of the English. However, as a general rule, if the language is intelligible, and passes QC and passes peer review etc., then it will be published as is".[157]

88.  We put some of these concerns to Dr Patterson, who explained that:

In our production process we focus on delivering really well structured files that will be computable, for example. We don't expend effort in changing the narrative. Scientific articles aren't works of literature. That is not to say it wouldn't be nice if, sometimes, a bit more attention was paid to that. It is also true that one of the criteria for PLoS ONE is that the work is in intelligible English. If an editor or reviewer thinks that something is just not good enough and they can't really see what is happening, it will be returned to the author.[158]

89.  We are impressed by the success of PLoS ONE and welcome the wider growth of quality online repository journals. These will accelerate the pace of research communication and ensure that all work that is scientifically sound is published, regardless of its perceived importance. However, we recognise that this is a relatively new and rapidly evolving model, and potentially open to abuse because publication fees are involved. It is important that a high quality of peer review is maintained across all repository-style journals.

18   Ev w4, para 3 [Richard Horton]; Ev 101, para 2 [Royal Society] Back

19   "The history of peer review", Elsevier, Back

20   Ev w4, para 3 [Richard Horton] Back

21   Ev w119, para 3 Back

22   "The history of peer review", Elsevier, Back

23   For example: Ev w36, para 1 [Lawrence Souder]; Ev w72 [Political Studies Association]; Ev w77, para 3 [Royal Meteorological Society]; Ev w95, para 19 [British Antarctic Survey]; Ev w105, para 6 [Publishers Association]; Ev 82, para 2 [Wellcome Trust]; Ev 104, para 16 [Royal Society]; and Ev 115, para 7 [Elsevier] Back

24   Ev w105, para 6 Back

25   Q 5 Back

26   Ev 89, para 53 [Philip Campbell, NatureBack

27   Ev 101, para 5 Back

28   Q 7 [Dr Nicola Gulley, Dr Robert Parker and Professor John Pethica] Back

29   Ev 66, para 8.1 Back

30   Ev w57, para 3 [Academy of Social Sciences] Back

31   Ev 72, para 16 Back

32   Ev 72, para 15 and the original 2009 survey: "Peer Review Survey 2009: preliminary findings", Sense About Science, Back

33   Ev 72, para 15 and the original 2007 survey: Mark Ware Consulting, Peer Review in Scholarly Journals - perspective of the scholarly community: an international study, January 2008 Back

34   Ev w95, para 21 [British Antarctic Survey] Back

35   Q 8 Back

36   For example: Ev w47, para 10 [Professor R I Tricker]; Ev 72, para 14 [BMJ Group]; Ev w99, para 3 [International Bee Research Association]; and Ev w130, para 2.6 [Dr Thomas J Webb] Back

37   Q 88 Back

38   Ev 80, para 32 Back

39   Q 162 Back

40   Q 2 [Nicola Gulley]; Q 95 [Mayur Amin]; Ev w5, para 13 [Richard Horton]; and Goodman SN, Berlin J, Fletcher SW Fletcher RH, Manuscript quality before and after peer review and editing at Annals of Internal Medicine, Ann Intern Med, 1994, vol 121, pp 11-21 Back

41   Q 2 Back

42   Q 162 Back

43   Q 218 Back

44   "The Thomson Reuters Impact Factor", Thomson Reuters, Back

45   "The Thomson Reuters releases journal citation reports for 2010", Thomson Reuters Press Releases,, 28 June 2011 Back

46   Q 217 Back

47   As above Back

48   Q 162 Back

49   As above Back

50   Q 162 Back

51   As above Back

52   Q 294 Back

53   Q 97 Back

54   Ev w107, para 16 [The Publishers Association] Back

55   Q 253 [Sir Mark Walport] Back

56   Ev w44, para 5 [Professor John Scott, University of Plymouth] Back

57   Ev 124, para 1.4 Back

58   Q 163; and Q 163 [Dr Mark Patterson] Back

59   Q 3 Back

60   As above Back

61   As above Back

62   Q 6 Back

63   Q 163 Back

64   Q 98 Back

65   Q 96 Back

66   Q 99 Back

67   Ev 103, para 9 Back

68   Q 97 Back

69   As above Back

70   Q 64 Back

71   Q 247 Back

72   Ev 67, para 3.0 Back

73   Q 247 Back

74   Ev 71, para 9; Merton R K. The Matthew Effect in Science. Science 1968, vol 159, pp 56-63; and Wenneras C, Wold A. Nepotism and sexism in peer review. Nature 1997, vol 387, pp 341-43 Back

75   Ev 67, para 3.0 Back

76   Ev w79 [Professor Grazia Ietto-Gillies] Back

77   Ev w91 and Ev w133, para 1.2.2 Back

78   Ev 78, para 13, and Ev 125, para 6 Back

79   Qq 16-17 Back

80   Research Information Network, Activities, costs and funding flows in the scholarly communications system in the UK, May 2008 Back

81   JISC Collections, The value of UK HEI's to the publishing process, June 2010 Back

82   JISC Collections, The value of UK HEI's to the publishing process, June 2010, Summary p 2 Back

83   Ev 70, para 4 Back

84   Ev 114, para 5 Back

85   Q 103 Back

86   Ev 118 Back

87   As above  Back

88   Ev 146, paras 6-7 Back

89   Q 2 [Robert Parker, Royal Society of Chemistry] Back

90   Ev 96, para 5 Back

91   Q 2 Back

92   Q 63 Back

93   Q 65 Back

94   Q 251 Back

95   As above Back

96   Ev 71, para 8  Back

97   Ev w6, para 18 [Richard Horton] and Ev 66, para 1.0 [Committee on Publication Ethics] Back

98   Ev w6, para 18 [Richard Horton] and original quotes from: Jefferson T, Alderson P, Wager E, Davidoff F, The effects of editorial peer review, JAMA, 2002, vol 287, pp 2784-86 Back

99   Richard Smith, Classical peer review: an empty gun, Breast Cancer Research, 2010, 12(Suppl 4): S13 Back

100   As above Back

101   Ev 66, para 1.0 Back

102   Q 105 Back

103   Q 251 Back

104   Q 290 Back

105   "The Thomson Reuters Impact Factor", Thomson Reuters, Back

106   Ev 115, para 18 Back

107   Ev 138, para 2 Back

108   Q 116 Back

109   As above Back

110   As above Back

111   Q 118 Back

112   Q 118 Back

113   Ev w95, para 18 Back

114   As above Back

115   Ev w99, para 7 [International Bee Research Association] Back

116   Q 118 Back

117   Q 11 Back

118   As above Back

119   Ev 103, para 13 Back

120   Q 11 Back

121   As above Back

122   Ev 94, para 1 Back

123   Q 8 Back

124   Q 15 Back

125   As above Back

126   Q 254 Back

127   Q 12 Back

128   As above Back

129   Ev 72, para 16 [BMJ Group] Back

130   Ev 72, para 16 Back

131   Ev 88, paras 42-45 Back

132   "Overview: Nature's peer review trial", Nature Online, Back

133   Ev 117, para 30(a) Back

134   Ev 89, para 49 [Philip Campbell, NatureBack

135   "Editorial Process", The EMBO Journal, Back

136   Ev 89, paras 50-51 Back

137   Q 192 [Dr Michaela Torkar] Back

138   Q 192 Back

139   "Open letter to Senior Editors of peer-review journals publishing in the field of stem cell biology", EuroStemCell,, 10 July 2009 Back

140   "About PLoS ONE", PLoS ONE, Back

141   "Open Access Publisher Accepts Nonsense Manuscript for Dollars", The Scholarly Kitchen, 10 June 2009, Back

142   Q 171 [Dr Mark Patterson] Back

143   Ev 135, para 2 [Academy of Medical Sciences] Back

144   Ev 83, para 8 Back

145   Q 170 Back

146   Q 171 Back

147   Q 173 Back

148   Q 6 Back

149   Q 121 Back

150   Q 166 Back

151   For example: D. Butler, "PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing", Nature, 2008, vol 454, p11 Back

152   Q 176 Back

153   Q 253 Back

154   "PLoS ONE Editorial and Peer-Review Process", Public Library of Science, Back

155   Q 164 Back

156   As above Back

157   Richard Poynder, "PLoS ONE, Open Access, and the Future of Scholarly Publishing", 7 March 2011,, p 24 Back

158   Q 167 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 28 July 2011