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Fixing peer review

Today Academic Karma comes out of beta with the launch of a new website and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to explain what we think is wrong with peer review, why this is bad for science and how Academic Karma aims to fix peer review.

Peer-review is – at its best – a cornerstone of science. Good peer review identifies potential weaknesses in scientific work, encourages authors to do further work to provide convincing evidence if necessary, and helps to ensure that details required for others to understand and replicate experiments are presented. Good peer-review should lead to greater reproducibility and fewer retractions.

While publication is heavily incentivized – and publication rates continue to grow dramatically (e.g. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068397 ) – there are meagre rewards for good peer-review. Editors recount stories of prolific scientists who barely peer-review at all. The reviewing academics do is largely on the basis a sense of duty or friendly coercion from editors. As a result peer review is rarely prioritised and leads to long delays in publishing.

As explained in our animation and  faq, Academic Karma is a universal peer review platform. This means that as a reviewer, you could now do all your reviewing, for whatever journal, using Academic Karma. You would then have a complete copy of all your peer review in a single place, and you would have a public profile listing the number of times per calendar year you reviewed for each journal. Unfortunately there is currently one caveat – the journal has to accept your review via email. Academic Karma will customise the review form to match the format required by any journal, which in our experience makes it possible for most journals to accept the review. If the journal is not willing to process a review which contains all the relevant information simply because you sent it via email, then do you really want to review for that journal anyway?

But the point of this blog is not to sell you on why you should use Academic Karma to improve your experience of peer-review (although we think it will!) but how a universal peer review platform like Academic Karma can help fix peer-review.

The first way is that it can change the incentive structure around reviewing. Academic Karma does this using a reviewing currency (which we call karma). When you review you earn karma, and when your manuscript is reviewed you pay karma. By keeping a positive balance you are reviewing enough to support the rate at which you are publishing. As an extra incentive, if you have a positive balance you can see reviews for your paper as soon as they are completed by the reviewer (i.e. without waiting for all of the other reviewers and editors to finish). Karma can then be awarded either on the basis of timeliness and quality of a review. We are currently transferring karma on the basis of reviews completed within 10 days (50 karma) or 20 days (25 karma) to incentivise timeliness, but it would be possible to incorporate quality measures into this transfer.

The second way is that it keeps a publicly visible profile of an academic’s contribution as a reviewer. This provides extra visibility for reviewing activity, which we hope over time will be incorporated into the ways in which academics are evaluated.

The third way is that it decouples co-ordination of peer review from publishing. We sometimes mistakenly believe that we are peer reviewing ‘for’ a particular journal, when in fact we are peer reviewing for our peers, and for the scientific literature and science in general. However, peer review as a process has become something which is tightly tied to a journal. As a result, authors often have to re-start the peer review process with completely new reviewers when they submit a revised manuscript, even when many of the revisions have been done in response to reviewers reviewing ‘for’ the first journal. A universal peer review platform allows authors to keep the same reviewers even when resubmitting to a different journal. More broadly, however, it is worth noting that journals have not had to innovate much in terms of peer review – there has been substantially more innovation in other areas of publishing. By decoupling peer review co-ordination from publishing (while still allowing complete editorial control), it suddenly becomes possible to innovate purely in the area of peer review. This is exactly what Academic Karma is going to have to do if it is going to succeed in building a critical mass of enthusiastic peer-reviewers.

You can now sign in and register at  Academic Karma using your ORCID credentials – so there is no need to remember yet another password/username.  We hope this platform is a big step towards fixing peer review, but at the end of the day it is just a platform and we really need your support to turn it into a movement for reforming peer review.

Scientists who open-review preprints

Peer review is controlled by publishers who generate billions in profits from free labour. What are your options if you do not want to provide free labour to be exploited by publishers, but still  want to contribute to peer review?

  1. Demand payment for peer review either to yourself, or for your department, or perhaps a contribution to a worthy cause
  2. Refuse to review for certain publishers
  3. Open review preprints

The problem with 1. is that publishers will pass that cost onto authors. A good example of Option 2 is The Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier.

What about option 3?

The idea is that you only agree to review manuscripts if they are also posted as preprints, and that you publish your reviews openly online and send the link to the journal editor.  The authors can respond to your reviews openly, independently of the review process in any particular journal. The journal can still use your reviews of course, but then again so can anyone else.  Instead of doing free work for a publisher, you have instead contributed a common good from which everyone can benefit .

There is already a  group of pioneers in this space who are already posting open preprint peer review.  These scientists have between them written 61 open reviews of 51 preprints.  Undoubtedly there are many more examples (e.g. in blog posts) which have not collected here – please point us to these so that we can index them.

Not everyone is comfortable posting non-anonymous open peer review. We have created a platform where you can post content-open preprint peer review anonymously or non-anonymously. You can review any arXiv, bioRxiv, PeerJ, SSRN preprint, or even papers deposited in several institutional repositories.   If you are worried your review is overly critical and might be damaging to the authors, you can also set an ’embargo’ period to give the authors a chance to respond before the review is made open.

So here’s to those scientists who are showing us that there is a way to contribute to peer review without providing free labour to be exploited by publishers.


Prize for most endorsed review of #SMBE16 preprint

One of the goals of Academic Karma is to separate peer-review from publication in a particular journal.  One of the most promising ways of doing this is by the community shifting to content-open review of preprints.

In order to try to encourage this, we are putting up a $200USD prize for the most endorsed review of a preprint presented at SMBE16.

Here is a primer on how to use Academic Karma to do preprint peer review, and how to endorse preprint reviews.  Here  is a list of preprints presented at SMBE16.

The competition will run until the end of July.

Reviewing conference preprints.

Recently we tweeted the reasons for peer-reviewing but not for journals:

Its important to clarify what we mean by ‘for’ here:  we use it to mean as the primary purpose of the review. So by all means share a content-open preprint with a journal considering publishing the article.  Also, by content-open we mean making the content of the review open, but potentially choosing to remain anonymous.  Junior researchers  justifiably worry about implications of non-anonymously criticising senior researchers in their field.

One way to peer-review, but not primarily ‘for’ journals is to review a preprint which was presented at a conference you attend.  The advantages are that you get the chance to hear the author explain the work in person, and you can also ask them to clarify anything which was unclear in the preprint.

In order to make this easier, we have implemented a feature which lists preprints presented at selected conferences.  If you would like this feature enabled for an upcoming conference, you can register it here  http://academickarma.org/conferences, and let us know so we can help you curate the list of preprints.

One great example of this is the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution conference (SMBE16):  http://academickarma.org/conference/SMBE16.

In order to try to encourage more ‘conference preprint’ peer-review, we are going to award $200USD to the most endorsed review of a preprint presented at SMBE16.  The rest of this post is a primer on how to use Academic Karma to review a SMBE16 preprint.  In order to review a preprint you dont need to register specifically for Academic Karma, but you do need an ORCID identifier (http://orcid.org).

Step 1:  Choose a preprint to review here:  http://academickarma.org/conference/SMBE16.

Step 2:   Click on the ‘Review’ link, which takes you to the review page for that particular paper. For illustrative purposes, we are going to do a review of : A profile-based method for identifying functional divergence of orthologous genes in bacterial genomes.

Step 3:  On the review page, click on the ‘Review this paper’ link


Step 4: This takes you to a  login-page for logging into Academic Karma via your ORCID.  Once you have logged in you will be automatically redirected to the review page.



Step 5:  Write and submit the review.  You can specify who contributed to the review, whether you would like the comments sent via email directly to the author, if you would like to have the reviewed cc’d (e.g. to an editor), if you would like to sign the review, and an ’embargo period’ before the comments become publicly visible (allowing the authors to respond to the review before it goes live).


Step 6: Thats it!    Maybe tweet the review if you would like and ask people if they would like to endorse it.


To endorse a review, just click on the endorse button (you need to be logged in, but its easy to log in using your ORCID or twitter credentials.


All completed reviews are listed alongside the preprints here:  http://academickarma.org/conference/SMBE16.



Making open-access publishing cheaper and faster

One of the major goals of Academic Karma is to make open-access publishing both cheaper and faster.

One of the reasons open-access publishing remains expensive is the cost of coordinating peer review.  This is estimated to make up at least half the cost of publishing in a pure open-access journal.  Peer review is also one of the main reasons it takes so long between submitting and publishing a manuscript (https://quantixed.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/waiting-to-happen-ii-publication-lag-times/).   Peer review is slow because its difficult to find reviewers (we are all too busy working on our own manuscripts, which makes sense as that is what we are rewarded for) and its difficult to incentivise reviewers to spend time promptly on the review rather than their own work.

Scientific reports, a Nature Publishing Group open-access journal, also recognised that slow peer review is a problem, but they proposed to solve this by providing fast-track peer review with a commercial partner for a fee of $750, of which $100 goes to each reviewer (presumably either two or three reviewers) and the remainder is taken as an extra processing charge by the journal and its commercial partner.

In contrast, the whole point of Academic Karma is that diligent, timely reviewers should be able to access fast-track peer review on their own papers.  So in a sense we also want to introduce a two-speed review process, except that ours rewards Academics who are contributing to speeding up peer review.  The logic is that this creates an incentive for every scientist to be a regular and diligent peer reviewer, which speeds up the system for everybody.  In the long-run this creates a self-sustaining system which makes it much easier to find Academics eager to do ‘enough’ peer review so that their own papers will be reviewed in a reasonable time-frame.

Of course, timeliness is not the only factor in peer review.  The quality of the review is also very important, and for that reason we are working on ways in which reviewers, editors and authors can evaluate the quality of the review.  Ultimately we are trying to build a system which speeds up, improves the quality and lowers the cost of peer-review.

Frictionless peer review

The continuing proliferation of journals can make reviewing frustrating.  Every time you need to carry out a review for a different journal you need to remember the login details for the reviewing system for that specific journal.  More often than not you forget your login, and have to reset your password all over again each time you carry out a review.  Despite the extra hassle, their is no increased security over and above the security on your email login as the password reset details are sent via email.

We have tried to take as much of this hassle out of peer reviewing at Academic Karma.  In fact its possible to carry out a review at Academic Karma without logging in at all.  If an editor invites you to review a paper, we include a unique link for you to accept or decline the invitation (without log-in) and once you have accepted you will be sent an email which contains the review form itself.  You can simply fill in this form using your email client, and submit the review directly from your email.

If you want to use Academic Karma even though the editor didn’t invite you via Academic Karma, you still can, you just need to forward the review request email to your unique Academic Karma forwarding address and this will auto-generate a review invitation sent from Academic Karma.

Finally, remember that to sign up to Academic Karma you don’t need to create a login/password if you have already signed up to ORCID  – you can simply login with your ORCID credentials.

Tools to help you do less peer review and get less peer review spam

At Academic Karma we don’t think that more peer review is necessarily better.  Yes, peer review is essential for the modern scientific enterprise.   But you only have so much time, and there are  many demands on that time: admin, teaching, supervision on top of actually doing your own research.  You could always review more by spending less time on each review – but this will impact on the quality of your peer review.

So, here are the tools we have devised to help you peer review less (but hopefully better!)

1. Combined reviewing/publishing profile so you and others can see that you have done your fair share.  We integrate your publishing record (via ORCID) with a summary of your peer review history (e.g. http://academickarma.org/0000-0002-6982-4660 ).  So you can see when you have done enough peer-review overall, and also when you have done enough peer review for a particular journal. If you have done your share, then you can feel justified in declining the review invitation.

2. A tool to see if the authors have done their fair share of peer review.   When you register an manuscript review invitation at Academic Karma, we generate a combined reviewing and publishing profile of the first and last two authors.  So you can see if the authors have done their share.  If they haven’t then again you are justified in declining the invitation.

3. A tool to decline the review invitation and help editors find new reviewers.   We provide a link for you to ‘decline’ the invitation.  This sends an email to the editor informing them you can’t do the review as well as a link with tools for them to find a new reviewer.  After all, its not really your job to find reviewers for the editors.  The editor will also be able to access your profile (to see that you have done your share) as well as the combined authors’ profile.

4. Keywords to indicate the topics you care about reviewing. We let you specify keywords on your profile, and we provide tools for editors to find reviewers on the basis of those keywords, so that you only get invitations on topics which are of relevance to your current research interests (and not something you worked in 5 years ago).

We are working towards building a platform which provides reviewers much more control over when and what they are asked to peer-review.   Our vision is for an editor to immediately be able to identify willing expert reviewers so that there is no more need to ‘spam’ review invitations to 5 times the number of reviewers required for a paper.

Tutorial: How to use Academic Karma to review a paper

Lets say you are asked to review a paper ‘Test paper 26-1-22-05’ for the journal ‘Test journal’.  The first step is to enter the paper details on the ‘New Review’ tab at http://academickarma.org.    Alternatively, you can forward the review email invitation to a personalised  academickarma.org email address (which you can find on the ‘MyAccount’ page)  and the relevant details will be parsed from the email.


Once the details have been entered you are given the opportunity to decline or accept the review invitation. Lets say you have several review requests.  Academic Karma helps you to decide which paper to prioritise for review by calculating a ‘Combined profile’ listing all the reviewing and
publishing activity of up to 4 of the authors (by default the first and last two).


When you click on the ‘Combined profile’ link you can see that the reviewers have earnt more karma than they have spent, which might convince you to accept this review assignment over another from authors who have do not have a demonstrable record of peer review.


Once you accept the invitation, you are taken to a review page, which is customised to the journal you are reviewing for.  This form is also sent to your email address so that you don’t have to log back in to complete the review.  When you complete the review you are given the option of ‘signing’ the review.


An email is sent to the author informing them that your review is complete (but keeping your identity anonymous unless you opted to ‘sign’ your review).


This is what the review looks like when the author signs into their account.  Note that only the comments to the author are shared.


An email is also sent to the editor and journal editorial office with the contents of the review.


That’s it!