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Institute of Physics Publishing implements double-blind peer review

23 September 2020

The UK publisher will adopt the practice for its journals as part of an effort to achieve a more equitable review process.

IOP journals.
A selection of IOP Publishing journals. Credit: IOP Publishing

The UK’s Institute of Physics (IOP) Publishing is making double-blind peer review the default by the end of 2021 for authors publishing in Reports on Progress in Physics, 2D Materials, and the 51 other publisher-owned journals. The implementation of the practice, in which both authors and peer reviewers are unaware of each other’s identities, is one of several changes IOP Publishing is introducing to its journals in an attempt to make peer review fairer and more equitable.

The announcement comes three years after IOP Publishing launched a trial of double-blind review in its journals Materials Research Express and Biomedical Physics & Engineering Express. Recently more than a third of contributors to those journals have been choosing to have their papers reviewed via double-blind rather than the traditional single-blind process, in which reviewers know the identity of authors but not vice versa.

The benefit of single-blind, which has been the norm in physics for decades, is that knowing authors’ names can help referees evaluate papers in the context of the researchers’ previous work. Advocates of double-blind, however, have long argued that anonymizing both authors’ and reviewers’ names removes any conscious or subconscious biases that reviewers may have toward researchers from certain countries, lesser-known institutions, and underrepresented backgrounds.

Some have argued for a shift in the opposite direction toward open peer review, in which referee reports are published online, often listing the names of reviewers. “We felt that we needed to go either to fully open where everybody is named, or to fully anonymous where nobody is named,” says Kim Eggleton, research integrity and inclusion manager at IOP Publishing.

Previous studies have indicated that researchers strongly support open peer review—but only when referees aren’t named. That concern resonates particularly among junior researchers, who often feel they may face retribution from senior faculty if they offer critical feedback.

That’s what swayed IOP Publishing to adopt double-blind, Eggleton says. (The policy does not apply to journals such as the Astrophysical Journal that are published in partnership with a scientific society, but they can opt in.) But the publisher is also implementing a key tenet of open peer review: In an effort to credit and acknowledge peer reviewers’ work, IOP will publish some referee reports, without disclosing reviewers’ names, as well as the authors’ responses to that feedback. For Eggleton, the combination gives both “maximum objectivity” and “maximum transparency.”

Andrea Taroni, chief editor of Springer Nature’s Nature Physics, which started allowing authors to opt in for double-blind peer review in 2015, says IOP’s move toward greater objectivity is commendable. But he notes that referees can potentially find out who the authors are in many cases, especially in smaller fields, since many physicists already post their papers on arXiv. Eggleton acknowledges that could be an issue. But she also points to a 2017 study of submissions to software engineering conferences that found that most peer reviewers can’t accurately guess the identity of authors when asked to do so.

Matthew Salter, publisher at the American Physical Society, notes that two decades ago APS was one of the first physical sciences publishers to try double-blind reviewing but ended the program in 2002 after experiencing limited uptake. He says APS “will continue to monitor and respond to the demand for alternative editorial and publishing models.”

In addition to instituting double-blind reviews, Eggleton says, IOP Publishing plans to increase the diversity of its journals’ reviewers and editorial boards. A recent report that focused on reviewers’ location, career stage, and motivations behind conducting peer review suggests the publisher has plenty of work to do. Based on a survey of more than 1200 researchers, the report found that those reviewing for IOP journals who are based in Western nations are overburdened by peer review, whereas referees in non-Western nations often have the capacity to take on more review work.

The findings echo those of a 2018 report published by the firm Publons, which allows academics to claim credit for peer review. The Publons report also found that it’s getting harder to find willing referees, and that researchers from the US and other Western countries get a disproportionately high number of reviewing requests.

The IOP Publishing survey also revealed that around a quarter of early-career researchers reported having more time available for peer review. In an attempt to recruit more early-career researchers for peer review, IOP has introduced a formal policy on co-reviewing, in which senior faculty share reviewing responsibilities with their junior colleagues. Although the practice is widespread, it is seldom formally recognized or rewarded. Under the new policy, all peer reviewers can co-review manuscripts with other researchers as long as they inform the journal and disclose the identity of co-reviewers.

Editor’s note, 23 September: The article has been updated to clarify that the journals are owned by IOP Publishing, not IOP. The original article also incorrectly stated that double blind will be mandatory for the 53 journals, rather than the default method of peer review.

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