As newly appointed Editor-in-Chief of Biology Open (BiO), I report to the Board of Directors of The Company of Biologists. The board asked me to develop a vision and goals for BiO for the next five years (my term of service). The board also empowered me to experiment. BiO might be considered The Company of Biologist's sand box (or sand pit, if you're in the UK), the journal where we can test, implement and refine ideas to improve peer review and scientific publishing. The best ideas might be adopted by other journals in The Company of Biologists's portfolio. And if we're really successful, our ideas might be imitated by other publishers.
My goal for BiO is to improve the author experience. I want scientists to submit their manuscripts to BiO because the author experience is exceptional: rapid peer review, rigorous peer review, and unambiguous and transparent criteria that we use to accept or reject manuscripts for publication. During the next year, I plan to develop several ideas around this goal, which I will explain in future editorials. This month I focus on gatekeeping.
All journals act as gatekeepers. At every journal, the editors – either academic or professional – decide which manuscript to reject, which to send for peer review, and which to accept following peer review. Often, the criteria by which editors decide to reject a paper without peer review are not defined. Editorial decisions, even within the same journal, can be inconsistent – one editor's reject is another editor's send for peer review. It's frustrating and inefficient for authors when journals reject a manuscript without providing a good reason. It's a waste of resources when authors submit to a journal without having any indication of how likely it is that their manuscript will be peer reviewed.
If you're going to be a gatekeeper, then the criteria for entry should be unambiguous and uniformly applied. Therefore, following consultation with the BiO's editors and in-house editorial staff, I'm pleased to define the rubric by which BiO will accept or reject manuscripts (see Box 1). From January 1, 2024, all manuscripts submitted to BiO will be assessed based on this rubric. If a manuscript falls short in one or more or criteria, then that will be clearly conveyed to the authors. If your manuscript meets these criteria, then we will provide you with fair and constructive peer review.
I. Initial review
All graphs must show individual data points or, if data points are too numerous, indicate variance using an acceptable alternative approach.
All figures should be color-blind friendly (see https://thenode.biologists.com/data-visualization-with-flying-colors/research/).
If we cannot understand the manuscript, or if there are frequent grammatical or syntax errors that are barrier to comprehension, then authors will be asked to address this before consideration by an editor.
BiO does not consider articles in pure physics, chemistry, engineering, earth sciences, clinical studies, surgical procedures, public health, and homeopathy, complementary or alternative medicine.
II. Review by editor before peer review
The manuscript must address a clearly stated biological hypothesis or the manuscript must report a discovery with a discussion of how the observations could be applied to a field or used to address a hypothesis.
Manuscripts describing new or optimized protocols must be sufficiently validated: proper positive and negative controls, standard curves to assess sensitivity, assays to assess specificity (where relevant), measurements of robustness.
III. Manuscript sent for peer review
Does each figure have the proper controls?
Are experiments performed using appropriate methods that will answer the question (or test the hypothesis or support the observations) posed by the authors? Is the right tool used for the job?
Were the data analyzed using appropriate statistical tests?
Were experiments in each figure performed using adequate number of biological replicates?
Is there sufficient raw data to assess the rigor of the analysis?
Does the methods section provide sufficient detail to permit reproducibility?
Are the author's conclusions supported by the data?
Are there any flaws in the experimental design that invalidate the approach taken by the authors?
Are there experiments that have not been performed, but if true would disprove the conclusion? If yes, and if such experiments would be costly or time-consuming to perform, do the authors acknowledge this in a discussion of the limitations?
Do the authors cite and discuss the merits of relevant data that would argue against their conclusion?
Do the authors cite and discuss the merits of relevant data that would support their conclusion?
For techniques/methods manuscripts, do the authors cite and discuss the current state of the field and clearly explain how the method improves the field?
IV. Review by editor after peer review
Editors will read the peer-review reports and assess the above criteria. If the manuscript meets all the above criteria, then the manuscript will be accepted for publication. If there are deficiencies in the manuscript, then the editor can decide whether to reject (if deficiencies are not fixable) or, if the deficiencies are fixable, the editor can encourage the authors to revise and resubmit. Editors will encourage authors to modify the text or the interpretation of results, rather than conduct additional experiments, when feasible.
Subjective criteria such as broad interest or impact are not to be considered as a basis for rejecting a manuscript.
Adapted from Universal Principled Review: A community-driven method to improve peer review. Cell 179(7):1441-1445, 2019.
If your manuscript was peer reviewed, but rejected by another journal, we encourage you to submit your manuscript, together with the previous reviews, to BiO (we have a mechanism with our sister journals that enables just that). Our editors will review the reviews. If your manuscript meets our rubric for publication, then we are happy to publish your manuscript without additional peer review.
My goal is to minimize the degree to which we rely on subjective judgements, and to make these criteria public and transparent, so our potential authors know precisely how their manuscripts will be judged and handled before possible publication. We will publish manuscripts where the data are reported transparently, where the statistics are solid, where the methods are reported in detail, and where the conclusions are supported by the data. We will not attempt to judge how many citations a manuscript will get in the future. Impact is not a consideration in our rubric. Subjective criteria such as broad interest will not be considered as a basis for rejecting a manuscript.
I do not know how to completely eliminate subjectivity from peer review. The new rubric is our best effort to maximize objectivity and minimize subjectivity, to provide authors with a clear bar for entry into BiO. The rubric is also dynamic. As we use the rubric, we could introduce changes and tweaks to improve our assessments. At least once per year, we will release data on how the rubric is performing. What percent of manuscripts were rejected by editors? What were the most common reasons for rejection? Over time, did the number of editorial rejections change? Did the reasons for rejection change? What can we learn from these results?
I welcome your comments and suggestions, by email. Thank you for joining us in this experiment to improve the quality and transparency of peer review at BiO.