Essay

It is finally time for post-publication review

Ken Hallenbeck
Feb. 3, 2022

Writing a manuscript is a familiar process: draft, submit, revise, resubmit and proof. Publication is the primary way we communicate our research and build our scientific careers. The process can take months to years, and though it is far from perfect, publication remains the gold standard of academic quality control.

But what happens next? Occasionally, publication is accompanied by a university press release, social media discussion or even news reporting. Most of the time, however, the answer is nothing.

Post-publication dialog about lab research is difficult. An author might take a report that an experiment isn’t reproducible as a personal attack; the publishing journal could see it as a shot at its editors. Most likely, the differences are details that were lost in translation from lab to manuscript and back to lab. How can the scientific community work together to translate those details more effectively?

Several platforms now exist for constructive post-publication conversations. Some succeed in addressing a few of these challenges, but none have been adopted widely. For example, PubPeer has gained traction as a place where researchers can post criticisms of poor-quality papers. Sites such as ScienceOpen, SciBase and PreReview aim to be repositories of crowdsourced manuscript reviews. A growing list of post-pub platforms is hosted at Reimagine Review. Increasingly, authors can post insights about their own work on social media, and readers will ask questions and provide feedback.

If the conversation about post-publication review has been ongoing for many years, and the platforms exist and are ready to use, there must be larger reasons why scientists rarely engage with papers — their own or their colleagues’ — once the final version goes up online.

I see three main challenges to post-publication peer review:

  1. Incentives. Scientists want issues of reproducibility and post-publication dialogue to be addressed but have no incentive to engage. They rightfully ask, “Will this help me get a postdoc position? How about a promotion? Will this increase my standing in the scientific community?” Any platform that seeks to be effective must align self-interest and nobler motives.
  1. Political realities. Science positions itself as an objective pursuit of truth, but research scientists know that’s not always how it works. How likely is a graduate student to criticize publicly their professor’s work, even when their point is valid? A failure to recognize the prominent role these dynamics play in human behavior will limit any solution’s effectiveness.
  1. Access. Reviewing a paper requires being able to read that paper, but most scientific knowledge is published in subscription-based journals whose business model is built on limited access. While the proliferation of preprint servers and open-access journals is a tremendous step in the right direction, the research community has a long way to go before publishing a paper means everyone can read it.

Fortunately, scrutinizing the power dynamics of the academic hierarchy and accelerating the adoption of open access and data sharing are areas of active advocacy throughout the scientific research community.

However, we can and should create new incentives for post-publication review. What if post-publication platforms were as fast and easy to use as social media but quality contributions carried the career gravitas of a first-author manuscript? While this might require an expansion of what is considered peer review and academic contribution, such an expansion is long overdue.

If we want researchers to invest time and energy in scientific dialogue — not just scientific publication — we need to take the scientific manuscript off its centuries-old career pedestal. Serving as an associate editor, moderating online discussion forums and a record of writing public reviews should fall in an expanded curriculum vitae category: academic contributions. Researchers could have online repositories for their public manuscript reviews. Think of a GitHub or ORCiD — a public record of your contributions — but for peer review.

The next time you enjoy reading a paper or are tasked with hosting journal club, consider writing a public review and inviting your colleagues to join in the post-publication conversation. I hope to see you there.

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Ken Hallenbeck

Ken Hallenbeck earned a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of California, San Francisco, and now is an early drug-discovery researcher. He serves on the board of directors of ReImagine Science and is the life sciences lead at TerraPrime.

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