Rethinking Peer Review in Academic Publishing: An Interview with Frontiers

This is the eighth interview in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world. The series has featured interviews with Anvil Academic, Stanford Highwire Press, NYU Press, MIT Press and the Penn State University Press


Today I speak with Kamila Markram, president of Frontiers, a new online platform for open access publishing in science fields. Frontiers is a grassroots initiative started by scientists for scientists, with an immensely innovative new peer review system. Our discussion today covers Frontiers’ scope and goals, and how it plans to contribute to the changing landscape of academic publishing.

AK: Could you explain what Frontiers is about, and what makes it distinct from other open access publishers such as Ubiquity Press, Scholastica and Anvil Academic?

FM: Perhaps a more valid comparison would be with PLOS or BioMed Central: Frontiers will have published five thousand peer-reviewed open-access papers across twelve disciplines in the life sciences by the end of 2012. Some of our journals already have impact factors and we’ve been in the major archives for a few years now.

Frontiers was founded by academic scientists out of a collective desire for a better publishing option – one that’s driven by the needs of working researchers, and that puts the responsibility for publishing back into the hands of researchers themselves. We started in the life sciences in 2008 and are currently expanding into all other fields of science, and soon into the social sciences and humanities. We’re rooted in communities of researchers and we’re deeply focused on those communities. Our editorial boards are top notch and global, our system makes peer review fast and fair, and we protect authors’ rights to fair treatment while assuring the integrity and quality of peer review. Frontiers has built a sustainable, scalable model of open access, equal-opportunity scholarly communication, based on a stress-tested and refined web platform.

Frontiers is not only about open-access publishing, though. We are committed to provide web tools and online services for academics to promote and disseminate their work. Frontiers launched academic profiles in 2010 and has been linking publications to these ever since, but also provides the tools for our users to organize conferences and workshops, run their own blogs, write news, disseminate their video lectures. We provide detailed web analytics for all content linked to profiles, so our users get feedback on the impact of their work. We’ve recently integrated a networking platform into our publishing model to further enhance the visibility of publications and other content of our authors, editors and users. Since its launch this year, the Frontiers Network has generated impressive increases in engagement, as measured by article, profile and page views.

The Internet has transformed us all into an information society. Academics in particular are turning into cyber-academics, with instant access to knowledge via online libraries, databases, networks and services. At Frontiers our mission is to meet these manifold needs of today’s cyber-academics. This involves publishing articles, but also providing the communication & networking tools as well as services that will facilitate scientific communication and increase academics’ reach and impact.

AK: Could you tell me more about the new forms of peer review that Frontiers offers?

FM: Frontiers’ existence stems from the need to solve the problems of traditional peer review. These problems have been apparent for a very long time: cronyism, excessively subjective criteria, unaccountable reviewer behaviour, unconstructive criticism, and a bias toward rejection.

Peer review in Frontiers begins with a different premise: instead of asking “should this paper be rejected,” reviewers are asked “if this paper is technically and logically sound, how can it improved, with the goal of eventual publication?”

The Frontiers approach creates a different peer review environment from the outset to the outcome of the process. Reports are prepared by at least two independent reviewers, but then the Frontiers approach differs from all others: there’s a second, interactive phase of review, in which authors and reviewers all correspond directly in an online forum, with the goal of a consensus decision. Even when a paper is rejected, a reviewer’s duty is to help the authors understand steps to improve their work. If a disagreement arises, then the editor will step in and moderate.

When a paper is published in Frontiers, the names of reviewers who endorse publication are listed on the manuscript. This doesn’t just encourage constructive dialogue during peer review. It ensures the quality and soundness of the research, since reviewers publicly assume a share of responsibility for a published article.

In Frontiers, the entire peer-review takes place in an online Review Forum, where reviewers and authors can interact directly with each other and in principle without any time delays. This direct interaction has turned the review process very efficient, rapid and constructive.

It’s often assumed that anything other than high rejection rate results in compromised quality of published research, but the Frontiers model results in published work of even greater quality than in traditional journals. The innovations at the heart of Frontiers’ approach to peer review– interactivity, consensus building, accountability – are loved by our authors and reviewers. It’s simply a better way.

AK: Do authors have to pay to publish with Frontiers? What are these charges?

FM: Yes, as an open-access publisher our business model is based on article processing fees. These can range between 575 Euros to 2,000 Euros depending on article type and whether the article is part of a “Research Topic” collection, or a stand- alone article. However, quite a few article types are entirely free of charge, such as editorials, book reviews, commentaries and opinion articles. Also our invited prestigious tier-climbing articles, the “Focused Review” and “Frontiers Commentary” are entirely free of charge.

There are no submission fees or supplementary figure fees, and we waive all or part of these fees for authors from low-income countries, or for special cases in which authors’ ability to pay is restricted.

AK: Humanities authors do not generally get large enough grants to cover article processing fees. How would Frontiers deal with this if it shifts towards publishing humanities journals?

FM: In the long term, we hope to offset publishing costs for all authors – not just those in the humanities – through alternate revenue streams. As the bulk of scholarly publishing shifts inexorably toward open access, we will work collaboratively with funding agencies, university administrations, libraries and other open access publishers to facilitate the transition of the humanities to open access.

AK: What is the funding model that Frontiers uses?

FM: Frontiers is currently funded by author fees, or “gold” open access. We work on alternative revenue models to diversify in the future, and to be able to steadily reduce and eventually even offset publishing costs borne by authors.

AK: What are some of the alternate forms of metrics available to Frontiers authors to measure impact?

FM: We’ve developed a lot of alternate metrics within Frontiers, not just for authors but for editors, reviewers, and collections like our “Research Topics.” Frontiers is among the first journals to employ and share detailed article level metrics. We include more than just hits, downloads, and social media share counts: every registered user leaves an anonymous demographic trace when they read a paper, so authors can see the breakdown of their readership by discipline, seniority and a number of other measures.

We don’t just track article metrics, though: that same information can be aggregated over multiple articles for the same author, or even for editors and reviewers in our system. If you’ve reviewed ten articles published in Frontiers, you can see how each one performs and the same statistics are available for editors.

One significant distinction in Frontiers is that post-publication article metrics actually have real impact on authors: we rank articles according to their performance within their specialty, and authors of the top 10% of original research articles are invited to contribute a no-fee review paper for publication in Frontiers.

Article metrics aren’t the only story, however: supplementary material, author profile pages, blog posts and other media are important indicators of community interest. Authors and editors in Frontiers can access metrics for these items, as well as aggregate metrics of their overall impact within the community, for a more complete picture of the impact of their work. Currently, Frontiers is the only publisher to provide such comprehensive impact metric services for scientists.

AK: Will Frontiers be moving towards producing scholarly monographs? If so, what form would you imagine these monographs to take?

FM: Scholarly monographs are not currently on the horizon, but as a community-driven publisher, Frontiers will respond to the desire of authors and editors if the demand is there. For the moment, we are focusing on bringing our community-driven journals and our model of constructive, interactive peer review to every field where it can work.

AK: What do you think is the future of the university press?

FM: The Internet has profoundly changed how we seek and share information. Academics have always collaborated and shared their research. But the Internet has hugely accelerated this process: information and knowledge are instantaneously available and sharable, web tools and services are nowadays available to facilitate academic work, collaboration and communication. Networks and social media sites act more and more as distribution systems for articles and research.

This poses serious challenges for traditional academic publishers in general, not just the university press. Print journals and subscription-based publishing models were appropriate in the last century, but are an anachronism in the Internet and social media age: what proportion of readers actually touches a print copy, who actually goes to a publisher’s site when you can find all articles in aggregate digital databases and libraries online? Academic publishers need to drastically rethink and adopt their services and business models to the needs of the cyber-academics in the Internet Age.

At Frontiers, we think that the future of university presses and academic publishers in general is Open Science & Academia: open access, open data and open sharing. Experiments, data and research output such as articles have already gone digital and online. Authors – and funders! – request that their articles be disseminated to the maximum, instantaneously and without subscription barriers. Authors nowadays expect more than just a printed publication in a high-prestige journal: they demand article level metrics, enriched embedding of their articles into related content and supplementary material such as presentations, lectures and other multi-media content, they want to easily share and spread their articles across colleagues and the web. Readers want to be able to find out more about the authors and the labs they work in, related research, they want to dig down to the data level and so forth.

Today’s Internet technologies make all this possible. Success, and ultimately long- term survival, of academic publishers will depend on how quickly they are able to adopt to these powerful Internet trends that inevitably pull academia into an open and more collaborative space.

Image Credit: Frontiers

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