When a scholar visits an open access journal’s website for the first time, they look for certain markers of publication quality. Chief among them are well-outlined peer review policies. Peer review policies are statements about the peer review guidelines and processes that a journal follows. The presence of peer review policies on a journal’s website indicates publication transparency and professionalism to submitting authors, their research institutions, and funders.
Many funders require OA journals to have peer review policies listed on their websites. For example, Plan S, an OA initiative backed by a consortium of international research funders, requires “journals/platforms to have a solid system in place for review according to the standards within the relevant discipline and guided by the core practices and policies outlined by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Details must be openly available on the respective journal and platform websites.” Similarly, many indexing services require that journals list at least basic peer review policies on their websites to confirm that they have quality control systems in place. For example, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) requires journals to list an editorial or peer review statement on their website.
A journal’s peer review policies should be easily accessible from its publication website. Below we outline the primary elements to include in journal peer review policies and best practices to follow.
At the highest level, journal peer review policies should include the type of peer review process the journal follows, whether it be single-blind, double-blind, or open peer review. Journals should define the peer review type they use, clearly stating what information is anonymized and what information is made public at each stage in peer review. For example, in its peer review policy Trials states, “Trials operates an open peer-review system, where the reviewers’ names are included on the peer review reports for authors. In addition, if the article is published, the named reviewer reports are published online alongside the article under a Creative Commons Attribution License.” The Trials peer review policy page also includes a brief explanation for why the journal chooses to use open peer review. Journals can add an explanation for their chosen peer review type to give authors more insight into the journal’s editorial philosophy.
Next, all journal peer review policies should include an overview of the primary steps in the journal’s peer review process and an estimated timeframe for peer review. Journal peer review policies should include the following process information:
- How manuscripts are initially evaluated
- The number of referees assigned to each manuscript after initial evaluation
- How peer review feedback is delivered
- The typical length of time for peer review
- How revise and resubmit requests are handled
- How editorial decisions are made and delivered—journals should list all possible decisions (e.g. accept, reject, accept with minor revisions, etc.)
Each of the above items should be explained in enough detail to ensure that authors will not encounter any surprises during peer review and that the rigor of the journal’s peer review process is apparent. In addition to demonstrating journal quality to authors and their funders and institutions, for journals, having publicly stated peer review processes and timelines helps to keep editorial teams accountable. For example, if a journal’s peer review policies state that the maximum amount of time for peer review is 90 days the editors will likely be more inclined to keep that promise then if they just had an internal goal to make all decisions in 90 days or less.
Journal peer review policies should also include or link to information on journal publication ethics. Journals should have plans in place for upholding core publication ethics, including:
- Identifying and handling potential conflicts of interest
- Handling allegations of misconduct should they arise
- Handling appeals and disputes in peer review
- The duties of reviewers including confidentiality, objectivity, and diligence
- The duties of authors, including confirming adherence to ethical guidelines in the journal discipline (e.g. ethical conduct for research involving human subjects) and statements of any potential conflicts of interest
- Post-publication corrections
Per the Plan S guidelines, journals with publication fees should also clearly state all fees on the publication website and a waiver policy for authors who demonstrate a need. Additionally, journals should confirm that fees will not influence editorial processes in any way. Plan S states, “payment of publication fees or waiver status must not in any way influence the editorial decision-making process on the acceptance of a paper.”
Core journal peer review and ethical policies vary by discipline. The policies of a medical journal will, of course, differ from those of a fine arts journal. For this reason, it is imperative for journals to not only follow the general core practices outlined by COPE but also the standard practices and policies in their discipline. For example, medical journals should follow the recommendations outlined by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Other organizations with standards and best practices for upholding publication integrity include the Council of Science Editors (CSE), the European Association of Science Editors (EASE), and CrossRef.
In addition to clearly outlining their peer review policies, journals should make available annual statistics on their peer review performance to demonstrate adherence to the policies. This is one of the requirements for journals to be Plan S compliant. The Plan S guidelines state that journals must provide annual statistics “covering in particular the number of submissions, the number of reviews requested, the number of reviews received, the approval rate, and the average time between submission and publication.”
Journals should regularly audit and improve their peer review practices and policies to uphold the highest publication standards. Plan S and other OA initiatives are bringing journal policies and transparency to the forefront and helping to develop clearer criteria for OA journals to follow. Journals should be preparing for Plan S and other OA mandates and should always be on the lookout for new peer review policy best practices in their disciplines.