Trawling through the websites of academic journals to decipher their publication policies can be a laborious task. A new database aims to simplify the process.
Launched on 13 June, Transpose collates the policies of more than 2900 journals, focusing on three main categories for each: its peer-review model; its policy on sharing review duties with co-referees; and its rules about posting preprints and discussing results with the public prior to publication. To populate the database, Transpose cocreator Tony Ross-Hellauer and his colleagues scoured journal websites for policy documentation and contacted publishers directly.
“The information about those practices is very obscure,” says Ross-Hellauer, an information scientist at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. The Transpose project is supported in part by the nonprofit ASAPbio through a grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Ross-Hellauer says that the new resource, which he and his team will consistently update, will be useful for tracking the prevalence of various policies and whether they change over time. And though the site does not name and shame journals that lack transparency, it should serve as a nudge to publishers to elucidate their stances on certain practices. “There’s no clear structure between publishers or even between journals as to which information you will find where,” he says.
As they built up the database, Ross-Hellauer and his team conducted an analysis of the 171 most highly cited academic journals, including Physical Review Letters, the Astrophysical Journal, and other physics publications. They found that roughly three in four of the journals don’t provide clear information online about whether they allow co-reviewing. That finding validates the responses of junior researchers in a recent survey who said they often ghostwrite reviews, in part because journal policies on co-reviewing are unclear.
The analysis also reveals that nearly a third of highly cited journals don’t state clearly on their websites whether their system of peer review is single blind, double blind, or unblinded. The number of journals with policies addressing preprint versions of manuscripts is also low. Last month, Springer Nature, which publishes the Nature family of journals, clarified its position, saying that submitting authors may choose any license for publishing preprints and can engage with the media about them. Ross-Hellauer says that some journal publishers have begun to more clearly explain their policies on their sites in the time he and his colleagues have been gathering information.
Policies may be unclear because journal publishers assume authors are already aware of their field’s norms, such as which peer review models are typically used, says Transpose cocreator Jessica Polka. She is executive director of ASAPbio, which promotes innovation from preprints and open peer review in the life sciences. “But as research becomes more interdisciplinary and as interest from general readers becomes stronger, it’s increasingly important to make policies really explicit.”
Siân Harris, communications specialist at the research development nonprofit INASP and a committee member of Think. Check. Submit., a website that helps researchers identify trustworthy journals, is upbeat about the new database. “Even in very prestigious journals, it’s not clear what the policies are,” she says. “It seems like Transpose will be a really good resource for people trying to work out what they need to know about a journal.”
Ross-Hellauer and colleagues plan to continue talking to publishers about adding their policies to the database. Users may also submit policy information about the journals to which they’ve submitted. “Our goal is to make these policies more visible,” Polka says. “We hope that growing this database is a way to achieve that.”