Open Access Week 2021 – Writing an open peer review: an interview with Shirley Williams

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Open Access week 2021

Open peer review is one aspect of the Open Research movement which aims to make the research process more transparent, accountable and reproducible.

The peer review system for academic publications is traditionally a closed process whereby the author does not know the identity of the reviewer but the reviewer may know the identity of the author.  In order to improve the transparency and fairness of the peer review process, several journals now operate open peer review models. Some journals publish individual reviewer comments while others make a combined decision letter from all the reviewers openly available. Some journals also make the replies to the reviewers public so that the whole process is clear and available for others to make their own judgments about the fairness and stringency of the review process.

Portrait photo of Emerita Professor Shirley Williams

Emerita Professor Shirley Williams

I spoke to Emerita Professor Shirley Williams about her experience of writing an open peer review for the publishing platform F1000Research. Shirley retired around six years ago from the University of Reading’s School of Systems Engineering. Over the years Shirley’s research interests evolved from the technical to the more social aspects of computing. When she received her promotion to Professor, she chose the title Professor of Learning Technologies which reflected her research interests.

Why did you decide to contribute an open peer review?
The paper on the F1000Research platform was related to a study that  Dr Tharindu Liyanagunawardena and I had undertaken on Medical MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Someone flagged to us that this new paper was up for review and we decided to act as reviewers.

How much guidance did you get on what to include/consider in your review?
The platform asks reviewers to adhere to the principles of the Open Science Peer Review Oath and to the Committee for Publication Ethics’ guidelines for peer reviewers. There is a set of questions for reviewers which gives some guidance about what to include in your review.

What do you think about the publish first, review after model that the platform uses?
I think in these days lots of academic work appears in the grey literature. Platforms that allow work to be published but then reviewed certainly have a place. Reviewing in traditional journals (certainly in my discipline) can be a very lengthy process that can delay the publication of new research. Articles that pass peer review in F1000Research are then included in the PubMed Central database.

I can see that you did the review in conjunction with another researcher. Was this a way of helping them get experience as a peer reviewer?
No, not in this instance. At the time we were asked to contribute the review, Tharindu and I were working together so it seemed natural to write the review together and for us to both add our names.
I understand that the F1000Research platform does allow early career researchers who might not normally qualify as peer reviewers to contribute reviews in conjunction with their supervisor or principal investigator so it could be a good way of gaining experience if this was appropriate.

Did you have any concerns about your peer review being open to everyone to see? 
I didn’t have any worries about the peer review being open. I was happy that others could see what we’d said about the paper and our suggestions for improvement. Everyone can read the review online and it is also possible to cite the peer review as the platform assigns a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) to all reviewer comments.

Screenshot of the F1000Research article with the open peer review

The F1000Research article reviewed by Prof Williams showing the open peer review process (screen shot from the website, https://f1000research.com/articles/6-1699, CCBY)

I can see that the authors updated their paper after your review and their responses to your comments are also open. Do you think this makes the review process more transparent and collaborative?
I felt the ability for authors to respond to the review was a positive aspect of the process. Sometimes with traditional blind review I have felt that it would have been be an advantage for the authors and reviewers to engage in a conversation to help to improve the article.

Have you ever had an open peer review on one of your own papers?
I haven’t submitted a paper for an open review. Since I retired I see my research role as supporting co-researchers and I have left the choice of publications and the submission process up to them.

Do you have any advice to anyone thinking of contributing an open peer review?
As there are lots of different peer review models being used across the scholarly publishing landscape, I’d recommend making sure that you understand the review process, the publishing process and the degree of openness used by the journal before you accept to undertake the peer review. Most journals will have detailed instructions for reviewers available on their websites.

The article reviewed by Shirley and Tharindu is available for all to read, along with the reviewers’ reports and the authors’ responses to the reviewers.
Bendezu-Quispe G, Torres-Roman JS, Salinas-Ochoa B and Hernández-Vásquez A. Utility of massive open online courses (MOOCs) concerning outbreaks of emerging and reemerging diseases [version 2; peer review: 2 approved]F1000Research 2017, 6:1699 (https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.12639.2)

The citation for the open peer review that Shirley and Tharindu submitted is:
Williams SA and Liyanagunawardena TR. Peer Review Report For: Utility of massive open online courses (MOOCs) concerning outbreaks of emerging and reemerging diseases [version 2; peer review: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2017, 6:1699 (https://doi.org/10.5256/f1000research.13685.r28591)

Further reading
Aleksic J, Alexa A, Attwood TK et al. An Open Science Peer Review Oath [version 2; peer review: 4 approved, 1 approved with reservations]F1000Research 2015, 3:271 (https://doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.5686.2)

The University of Reading Open Research LibGuide covers all aspects of open research including a section on open peer review.

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