Peer review


Written evidence submitted by BioMed Central (PR 74)

The advent of the internet radically changed the way many scientific publishers operate. BioMed Central, which was launched in 2000 as the first publisher of peer-reviewed open access biomedical journals, was one of the pioneers to embrace the potential of the internet, by allowing everyone completely free and full access via the web to all scientific research articles as soon as they are published, and by using online technology for manuscript submissions, peer-review and production system right from the start.

Peer-review models

All research articles published in BioMed Central’s journals have undergone a thorough peer-review process that relies on expert editorial boards and peer reviewers just as traditional (non-OA) publishers do. The vast majority of the more than 210 journals use the traditional model most commonly used in biomedical publishing: two or more independent experts (scientists or clinicians) are invited to provide an assessment of the scientific soundness of the experiments and the interpretation of the results, and to comment on the extent of the advance or new insights gained. The editor responsible for overseeing the assessment of the manuscript makes a decision on the basis of the referees’ and the editorial board’s advice.

For most journals, the referees’ reports are passed on to the authors in anonymous format, unless the referee elects to sign the report. In contrast, the medical journals within the BMC series ( ) operate an ‘open peer review system’, thereby making the process more transparent: peer reviewers agree to reveal their identity to the authors and, if the study is published, the pre-publication history, including the referees’ reports and previous versions of the manuscript, is published alongside the article (see, for example).

BMC Biology, the flagship biology journal of the BMC series, is running an experiment with peer review, allowing authors to opt out of re-review by expert referees in cases where a submitted paper has been revised to meet criticisms of the original version. The experiment is in response to frequent complaints by authors that publication of papers is needlessly delayed by unreasonable demands on the part of referees, especially in the more selective journals. Under the experimental policy, which allows authors to decide whether they wish referees to see their paper again after revision, more responsibility for ensuring the validity of the paper rests on the authors, and on the editors who must decide whether the authors’ response to the criticisms is reasonable. The interests of readers are protected by a policy of inviting published commentary from an expert who is given access to the referees’ reports and the authors’ response if the case of re-review opt-out. This policy also has the important effect of lessening the burden on expert reviewers a scarce resource (see below).

A more extensive and radical experiment was started with Biology Direct, which developed its own unique peer-review model: Authors need to convince three Editorial Board members to assume responsibility for reviewing the manuscript. The Editorial Board members skim-read the manuscript in order to form an overall opinion and decide whether they wish to have their name associated with the publication of this article. If they agree, they provide formal comments and criticisms of the study; their comments and names are published along-side the paper, which is published regardless of the severity of the criticisms, unless the authors withdraw following the formal peer review.

Open access

Peer review is a largely but not perfectly effective system for ensuring that published research is soundly based. Providing full access to the findings and insights reported in the literature is paramount not only to advancing biomedical and translational research, but to ensuring the broadest possible forum for debate, and thereby enhancing the value of the information that informs public debate. By removing subscription barriers, open access publishing allows researchers to reach a much larger group of readers, including those in developing countries, and promote interdisciplinary research and debate. Open access mandates such as those imposed by the UK government's research councils and the European Research Council, that make it compulsory for scientists funded by them to deposit their articles in archives such as PubMed Central and UK PubMed Central, are essential first steps for disseminating scientific information more widely and making it much more visible.

UK PubMed Central is a very important resource by facilitating access to peer-reviewed biomedical and health research in the UK, and it needs to continue to grow and be developed in order to fully represent the research generated here. The continuing support from the UK government funding organizations are vital, so local services, improved and interactive content, and tools can be developed.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which hosts PubMed Central, has developed a number of tools that are not just valuable for users but also for improving the services publishers can offer to authors. For example, the BioMed Central’s online peer-review system makes use of a peer reviewer suggestion tool that is built on technology from the NCBI. This tool helps editors identify potential peer reviewers with expertise in particular research areas on the basis of their previous publications. Making this and other tools more sophisticated and user-friendly will be important for improving peer-review services and ensuring that high standards of peer review are maintained while the research output grows and with it the pressure on the research community to provide expert advice to their colleagues during the peer-review process. It is important for UK research that UK PubMed Central takes a lead in such developments.

The value of peer-reviewed research depends critically on the expertise and sagacity of the peer reviewers, and inevitably draws on limited resources of capable and experienced experts. Online tools for identifying appropriate peer reviewers will become increasingly important. Such tools are already important for enabling journals to focus referees’ responses effectively on key issues without making the process more cumbersome for the referee. Another important way of using scarce refereeing resources effectively, and minimizing the delays to publication of research, is sharing of referees’ reports between journals with different publication criteria so that manuscripts submitted to one journal can be published without additional review by another, more suitable one (see below).

As with other publishers, rejection rates vary greatly between BioMed Central’s journals: Some journals, such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, have a high rejection rate as they are highly selective and aim to publish only articles of sufficient interest or importance to justify drawing them to the attention of a broad readership of biologists or medical researchers, respectively. Other journals, including the BMC series journals, are more inclusive and have a moderate rejection rate, whereas BMC Research Notes publishes all sound research that could be of use to researchers within a given field, including negative results and updates on previous studies.

Some manuscripts are rejected because of serious flaws in their results and/or their interpretation, and they can not be published at all unless the authors can correct the flaws. Other manuscripts may be scientifically sound but deemed by the peer reviewers and/or editors to be of insufficient interest to the readership of the journal. In order to avoid lengthy re-refereeing of these manuscripts for other journals, which would delay publication for the authors and generate additional work for the ‘peer reviewer community’, BioMed Central operates a journal cascade whereby authors are offered publication in a journal with a lower interest and ‘threshold’ level. Manuscript files and referees’ reports can be readily transferred from one journal to another within the online submission systems.

Online tools and additional data

The availability of large datasets, such as those generated by the Human Genome Project and many other genomic and post-genomic projects since, and the associated development of bioinformatic tools enabling the analysis of such datasets, has made it clear that biomedical science can no longer function efficiently without unrestricted and open access to scientific data. While genomicists and bioinformaticians have long realised the need for, and advantages of, sharing their data in order to exploit their full potential, other communities are following suit, for example, by developing new standards of reporting clinical data and by calling for more transparency and access to more clinical data where possible, while taking into account crucial ethical concerns.

It is increasingly not only the peer-reviewed article itself but the associated data that are important for ensuring that all research efforts have maximum impact and spawn future studies in associated areas. It is for this reason that BioMed Central was set up to exploit the possibilities provided by the online environment and offer authors the opportunity to publish additional data files linked from their articles, including large raw datasets, movies and data formats that can be read directly by other software packages so as to allow readers to manipulate and further analyse the data. Also for this reason, editorial policies at BioMed Central have a strong emphasis on data deposition and encourage or insist on adherence to data formats agreed in the community, where appropriate.

Capturing the vast amount of data that is continuously generated and ensuring consistent data deposition according to agreed formats and nomenclatures will be crucial to enabling smooth meta-analyses of datasets from different databases. The creation of a central dataset archive, possibly associated with UK PubMed Central, would greatly facilitate this process and be extremely beneficial to UK scientific research.

About BioMed Central

BioMed Central ( is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector

BioMed Central

10 March 2011