Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents

5 Post-publication approaches

Post-publication review and commentary

204.  In addition to the checks and balances carried out in pre-publication peer review, the "wider scientific scrutiny post-publication is as important […] indeed, this is a form of secondary peer review".[366] The British Sociological Association considered that:

Peer review is in fact a layered process in which initial peer review of proposals leads into peer review of publications and thence into post-publication peer review (the latter is sometimes referred to as academic impact). The two are related and equally necessary processes.[367]

205.  Review after publication can be carried out in a number of ways. Historically, where fellow researchers either agreed or disagreed with an author's findings, they would publish their own manuscripts or correspondence with the relevant journal in order to progress scientific understanding in their field. Professor John Pethica, Physical Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, told us that:

[Post-publication review] is implicit in the fact that people publish subsequent papers saying, "X was right, Y was wrong, and we did this and produced that." That is implicit in the whole structure of scientific papers and there is a preamble about what has happened so far.[368]

206.  In recent years, with the growth of online communication systems, publishers have started to introduce more formal processes for rapid responses to published articles. BMJ Group explained that:

Many online journals encourage continuing discussion of their content. The BMJ's Rapid Responses or eletters, posted daily, provide a voluminous, lively, and often scholarly discourse and constitute an important source of ongoing peer review.[369]

207.  While the BMJ Group reports "voluminous" commenting, others have been less successful with this approach. The Royal Society has an e-Letters system, which allows researchers to comment directly on a published article, the comment is then linked to the article for others to see.[370] This has not proven to be particularly popular as "remarkably few people choose to use it".[371] Other learned society publishers we consulted did not have any formal processes for post-publication review and commentary.[372]

208.  Other more informal approaches, such as the use of online blogs and social networking tools like Twitter, are becoming more widespread. Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, told us that:

Web-based publishing brings new opportunities, because it brings the opportunity for post-publication peer review and for bloggers to comment. […] This is a fast-evolving space. As the new generation of scientists comes through who are more familiar with social networking tools, it is likely that Twitter may find more valuable uses in terms of, "Gosh, isn't this an interesting article?" All sorts of things are happening. It is quite difficult to predict the future. It can only be an enhancement to have the opportunity for post-publication peer review.[373]

209.  The BMJ Group added that with Twitter, even though "their [character limit] allow only the briefest comment, tweets are facilitating rapid and widespread sharing of links to articles and other online content and can, it seems, quickly expose failings in peer review".[374] For example, in December 2010, "many scientists blogged immediate criticisms of [a] widely publicized paper […] heralding bacteria that the authors claimed use arsenic rather than phosphorus in their DNA backbone".[375] Many of the initial criticisms came from "the scientific blogosphere".[376] Since then, "Science, the journal that published the original paper, has published eight papers criticising it, as well as a response by the original researchers"; the debate continues.[377]

210.  We questioned whether a potential growth in post-publication review and commentary would lead to declining expectation of pre-publication peer review by publishers. Dr Andrew Sugden, Deputy Editor & International Managing Editor at Science, did not believe this would happen.[378] Mayur Amin, Senior Vice President of Research & Academic Relations at Elsevier, agreed, adding that post-publication review and commentary would not "act as a substitute" for peer review.[379]

211.  Post-publication review in an era of new media and social networking tools, such as Twitter, is very powerful. The widespread sharing of links to articles ensures that research, both accurate and potentially misleading, is rapidly spread across the world. Failings in peer review can, rightly, be quickly exposed. However, there is no guarantee that false accusations of failings will not also be spread. Pre-publication peer review still has an important role to play, particularly in relation to assessing whether manuscripts are technically sound prior to publication. However, we encourage the prudent use of online tools for post-publication review and commentary as a means of supplementing pre-publication review.


212.  One of the reasons that post-publication review and commenting is not yet considered to be a viable replacement for pre-publication peer review is that the numbers participating in it are low. The publishers, John Wiley & Sons, told us that:

Evidence for the efficacy and usefulness of post-publication comment is not yet convincing, both in terms of the quantity and quality of such comments, although we expect to see links to blogs and other post-publication comments as standard practice, and our systems and processes will accommodate this if the academic and professional communities whom we serve want it. Post-publication comment is likely to be a supplement to pre-publication review rather than a substitute for it.[380]

213.  Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature and Nature Publishing Group, explained that the lack of commenting might be because "there is no prestige or credit attached [to it], there is the risk of alienating colleagues by public criticism, and everyone is busy".[381] Sir Mark agreed that academics do not like to "write critical comments of each other alongside the articles".[382] He added, however, that:

There are some very interesting community issues here. In the humanities, there is a long tradition of writing book reviews where one academic is scathingly rude about another academic. […] In the case of the scientific world, that tearing apart is done at conferences and at journal clubs. The scientific community does not have a culture of writing nasty things about each other.[383]

214.  One of the main challenges is therefore to get post-publication commenting tools more widely used in order to "get the critical views across" and "encourage people to air their criticisms and put their names to them without fear of any repercussions".[384]

215.  The issue is not just to get more researchers participating in public commentary; it is also essential that comments be fairly represented online. Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of BMJ and BMJ Group, explained that:

There are great variations [in journal practices]. Some journals exercise a liberal view, which is the BMJ's view. Others have a much more editorially tight control over what gets written, post-publication. In some cases that I am aware of, critical comment about papers does not get out into the public domain. The other problem is that even when it does, the authors often don't respond. One is left with a situation that is far from perfect. There is a lot of progress with the Internet but it is still not perfect.[385]

216.  However, the system could be considered to be "self-correcting" as "a scientist who wrote something that was particularly egregious would be subject to the peer review of their own community".[386]

Filtering content

217.  While post-publication review and commentary can be used to further improve the technical assessment of published research, it can also be utilised to fulfil another one of the functions of peer review: to filter research publications and act as a guide for what readers might find interesting.

218.  The extreme situation one could envisage would be that in which all research is published and then filtered, an approach advocated by Dr Richard Smith, former Editor of the BMJ.[387] However, we have already discussed why publishing research prior to reviewing it could be problematic, in particular for the biomedical sciences (see paragraphs 69-70). Mayur Amin, from Elsevier, explained the consequences of such an approach: "Where everything is published before it gets its first peer review filter, we may end up with a system where it is hard to differentiate between evidence-based conclusions and conclusion-based evidence."[388]

219.  However, with the growth of online repository journals (see paragraph 80) and the development of more advanced tools for post-publication review and commentary, the role of the publisher in filtering research prior to publication is diminishing. Professor Ron Laskey, Vice President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, told us that "if there is a move towards publication in journals such as PLoS ONE and where impact is less important, then a subsequent impact assessment such as the Faculty of 1000 could become increasingly important".[389]

220.  Faculty of 1000 Ltd (F1000) is an online service that collects the comments of selected experts on research articles that have already been published in biology and medical journals. F1000 told us that:

Our Faculties of 10,000 experts across biology and medicine are asked to highlight those publications that they believe to be particularly important, irrespective of where they are published (the majority of our evaluations—86%—are not from what are often thought of as the top-tier journals, e.g. Nature, Science, Cell, NEJM, JAMA, Lancet, BMJ). Faculty Members are asked to provide a rating (recommended; must read; or exceptional) and then provide a short commentary ("evaluation") on why they believe the article to be so interesting and how it might impact their own research or specialty, and their names are listed against this. These evaluations are effectively short open referee reports and the service acts as a positive filtering service.

Multiple Faculty Members can evaluate the same article, providing a combined higher rating, or can write a dissent if they disagree with an existing evaluation. The authors of the article can write a comment in response to the evaluation, and registered users can also write comments.[390]

221.  F1000 has policies to prevent bias in expert commentary; for example, the service is currently adding a specific declaration that Faculty Members will confirm for every evaluation they carry out. This declaration will state:

This work has been selected for evaluation entirely on its scientific merit. Neither I nor my co-evaluators (where applicable) have collaborated with the authors in the past year or been influenced in the selection of this work directly or indirectly by the author/s or by any third party. This evaluation presents my opinions and those of any listed co-evaluators.[391]

222.  Feedback on the usefulness of F1000 was limited. Professor Ron Laskey told us that "its use is patchy but it is recognised as providing a valuable service".[392] Dr Robert Parker, Interim Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, added that it was generally a positive thing.[393] At present this service is limited to biology and medicine .

223.  While it is too early to make a judgement on post-publication filtering mechanisms, such as Faculty of 1000 Ltd, we recognise that such a system could offer a valuable service if widely used. It is likely that such services will become more important with the growth of repository-type journals.

Measuring impact

224.  The post-publication filtering of which articles might be of particular interest and subsequent commenting on those articles could be considered to be the foundation of a new model for measuring impact. Indeed, by assessing a specific article in this way, the status quo of using a journal's Impact Factor to assess impact may be threatened. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) told us that:

a new paradigm is emerging and is being tested in several fields whereby articles are subject only to technical assessment (by peer review) before publication, and impact assessment takes place during the post-publication phase, which can broaden the assessment of the work (by peers) to a much wider constituency than can take place before publication.

[…] Rather than relying on the journal in which an article is published, it is now possible to focus on the merits of the article itself. An array of article-level metrics and indicators can be deployed to filter and assess content. Coupled with tools for post-publication commentary and addition of value, there are tremendous prospects for replacing the current impact assessment function of pre-publication peer review with a post-publication system that has the potential to be more efficient and effective.[394]

225.  Dr Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing at PLoS, explained that:

It is not just about a blog comment […] There is a whole range of metrics and indicators, including resources like Faculty of 1000, which can be brought to bear on the question of research assessment. […] We want to provide an indication when [readers] come to [a] paper of how important [it] is and what impact it has had through usage data, citation information, blogosphere coverage and social bookmarking. There are so many possibilities.

We have moved in that direction by providing those kinds of metrics and indicators on every article that we publish—we are not the only people doing this but we have probably taken it further than most—to try to move people away from thinking about the merits of an article on the basis of the journal it was published in to thinking about the merits of the work in and of itself. Indicators and metrics can help with that. They aren't the answer to the question but they will help. Ultimately, there is really no substitute for reading it and forming your own opinion.[395]

226.  David Sweeney, Director for Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, was not convinced that such "article level metrics […] necessarily captured the intrinsic metric" of a published article. He added:

I remain of the view that there will be no magic number or even a set of numbers that does capture intrinsic merit, but one's judgment about the quality of the work, which may well be, […] in the eye of the beholder, may be informed by a range of metrics.[396]

Sir Mark Walport agreed with Dr Patterson's final point that "if you want to assess the value of an individual article, I am afraid that there is no substitute for holding it in front of your eyes and reading it".[397]

366   Ev w77, para 4 [Royal Meteorological Society] Back

367   Ev w111, para 4 Back

368   Q 56 Back

369   Ev 73, para 21 Back

370   "eLetters", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Back

371   Q 55 [Professor John Pethica] Back

372   Q 55 [Dr Nicola Gulley and Dr Robert Parker] Back

373   Q 282 Back

374   Ev 73, para 21 Back

375   A. Mandavilli, Peer review: Trial by Twitter, Nature, 2011, vol 469, pp 286-87 Back

376   "Arsenic-based bacteria: Fact or fiction?", New Scientist Online, 27 May 2011 Back

377   As above Back

378   Q 159 Back

379   Q 160 Back

380   Ev 66, para 8.1 Back

381   Ev 89, para 47 Back

382   Q 282 Back

383   Q 284 Back

384   Q 212 [Dr Michaela Torkar] Back

385   Q 160 Back

386   Q 286 [Sir Mark Walport] Back

387   "Richard Smith: Scrap peer review and beware of "top journals"", BMJ Blogs Online, 22 March 2010, Back

388   Q 95 Back

389   Q 57 Back

390   Ev 143, paras 3-4 Back

391   Ev 144 [Faculty of 1000 Ltd] Back

392   Q 58 Back

393   Q 59 Back

394   Ev 80, paras 33-34 Back

395   Q 209 Back

396   Q 281 Back

397   As above Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 28 July 2011