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PeerRef: journal-independent open peer review

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PeerRef: journal-independent open peer review Elliott Lumb, PhD, founder and CEO of PeerRef. The PeerRef logo appears underneath this text and a picture of Elliott against a beige background is at the right.

Preface: In the latest article in our series on companies using innovation to support researchers, we are taking a look at the PeerRef platform for journal-independent open peer review. We asked Elliott of PeerRef to share with us how peer review is changing, and learned that the way forward is open peer review of preprint manuscripts, which both recognizes reviewing work and promotes sharing it among a more inclusive pool of researchers. Through PeerRef, the review and discussion of manuscripts is brought into the open so everyone can learn as science is evaluated, revised, and improved!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to becoming the founder of PeerRef?

I completed my PhD in medicinal chemistry at Monash University and the University of Nottingham in 2018. I had realised that working in the lab wasn’t for me, but I wanted to keep my connection to academia, so I applied for jobs in publishing. This was a great choice as I find academic publishing fascinating. I first worked at the open access publisher, Frontiers, which is where I met Kate, the co-founder of scientifyRESEARCH. It’s a real privilege to work at Frontiers because you’re working at a publisher and a high-growth startup; there are always new challenges and new things to learn. I managed a team of Specialists that helped researchers create article collections, then moved into the Strategy and Planning team where I looked into new opportunities and helped different teams understand and improve their processes. I love solving problems and there are many opportunities for innovation in publishing. So, throughout my time at Frontiers, I learnt all I could about the publishing industry and about the problems researchers face so I could build my own startup.

Peer review is a vital part of the publishing process but researchers are finding it increasingly frustrating; it’s opaque, biased and delaying research. I launched PeerRef towards the end of 2021 to make peer review open, provide researchers with more choice in how their research is shared and evaluated, and eliminate the need for repeated peer review in successive journals.

I’ve seen on preprint servers like bioRxiv that there is a Transparent Review in Preprints (TRiP) column showing reviews and discussions from PeerRef. How does PeerRef and open peer review work?

PeerRef is a journal-independent open peer review platform. We help researchers by organising peer review for their preprints and publishing the review reports. An author of a preprint can request peer review from PeerRef. After a few checks, we use tools to identify suitable expert referees. Referees complete our peer review form and we publish the reviews on our platform. We also publish author and referee responses alongside the reviews, which enables everyone to understand how the preprint has changed. PeerRef does not make editorial decisions like ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ so referees provide a decision on whether the preprint is academically sound or if it requires revisions.

At the end of the peer review, authors can decide to use the package of their preprint and its peer reviews as the final product, or they can send the preprint and reviews to a journal. Journal editors can use PeerRef’s open reviews to inform or make rapid publication decisions. We organise peer review for research on any preprint platform, but if a preprint is posted on bioRxiv or medRxiv we can post reviews alongside the preprint using TRiP. This feature is great for readers as they can easily see which preprints have peer reviews.

How does using this process with PeerRef contribute to making science more open and diverse?

PeerRef publishes signed peer reviews and assigns DOIs to them. By making peer review open we are making it more useful. There were 5 million articles published in 2022, which means that an estimated 100 million hours of peer review were conducted. This is a huge amount of scholarly work that is not in the public domain. Those reviews could be used to provide more context to research articles, used to train referees, and be used in research assessment. At PeerRef, we’re enabling all of this.

It is reported that 10% of reviewers do 50% of global peer review. At the same time, we know that researchers from mid and low-income countries and early career researchers are often not asked to contribute to peer review. This could be because journal editors typically use their network of trusted referees. Because we use a tool-first approach to source referees, we can broaden the pool of referees to include those that are experts, but are typically left out of the process.

For the researchers out there who are finishing up their manuscripts; are there any specific fields or areas of research that PeerRef is an especially good match for?

At PeerRef we organise peer review for all types of research as long as it is posted as a preprint and has a DOI. Currently, researchers that post preprints on bioRxiv and medRxiv can get the best experience with PeerRef. Not only do they benefit from the TRiP feature, but for the researchers that want journal publication after peer review, we also have several partnerships with publishers related to the biomedical and life sciences. These publishers include JMIR, Partners in Digital Health, and GigaScience. Editors of our partner journals will consider PeerRef’s peer review reports. These journals include JMIRx Med and JMIRx Bio, which are broad-scope overlay journals that can publish all types of research posted on medRxiv and bioRxiv.

From the other side of things, if I’m a researcher with a particular area of expertise, what do you see as the benefit of signing up as an expert reviewer with PeerRef?

Reviewers can have a better experience conducting journal-independent peer review with platforms like PeerRef. It’s simpler than journal-based peer review because the reviewer doesn’t need to consider journal scope, prestige, or other requirements. The research is at the centre of the assessment so the reviewer can focus on assessing the rigour and validity of the work while also providing constructive feedback.

Reviewers also get recognition for their peer review contributions with PeerRef. We publish signed peer review reports and assign DOIs to them. This enables reviewers to share their work and add it to their CVs. Funders and institutions can then consider a researcher’s peer review contribution in grant proposals and promotion decisions. PeerRef is also partnered with Reviewer Credits, which enables researchers to keep track of all of their peer review contributions and share it with others.

Is there anything that you would like to share about the vision you are working towards for PeerRef?

We can solve many problems and frustrations with peer review by decoupling it from journals. Funders are beginning to support journal-independent peer review of preprints, and researchers can get involved too. I encourage everyone to post preprints and get involved in preprint peer review by signing up as a PeerRef referee, requesting peer review of preprints, or posting preprint reviews on platforms like PREreview. Over the next decade we’re going to see journal-independent peer review of preprints become the primary way in which research is assessed. At PeerRef we’re building the platform that can serve all research communities. 


We would like to thank Elliott for sharing his insight!

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