Representation of relevant journals | Nature Biomedical Engineering

Everyone benefits from the filters of rigor, excellence and trust that scholarly journals should offer.

We all need information filters. In scholarly communication, journals, scientific forums, search engines, citation indexes, social media channels, and a scientist’s network of colleagues function as lenses to sift through research results. Some lenses provide a wide field of view, others fail to focus, and many may have edge aberrations. And, as with the photographic type, one lens is rarely enough, and the most useful lenses provide higher signals to background noise level.

What makes an information filter useful for further research? Usability, consistency and reliability should be the main qualities. As with successful brands, the value of a screening service must be easy to grasp (even when it is difficult to articulate), its performance must constantly improve, and its service must be reliable. Maintaining these qualities requires persistent efforts from the managers of the service and makes it almost impossible to satisfy every user. Content filters annoy authors who want to get in but are filtered out, and can irritate readers who rely on them to limit wasted time and effort. The job of owning or managing an information filter therefore involves a balancing act that comes with powers and responsibilities. Influence over an audience can be misused to manipulate it, and with the responsibility to preserve what is true comes the conscientious correction of what is not. Yet the lines between quality and fairness and between caution and sneakiness are often contextual and blurred. For social media services, content moderation is, in fact, a tough job.

Curation in information filters is therefore essential. Scientific research is increasingly complex and multidisciplinary, and the availability, dissemination and accessibility of research results are only increasing. Indeed, the Internet allows any research result to be published somewhere, social media disseminates information more easily and quickly, and open access initiatives and policies1 make content more and more accessible. Therefore, good judgment is a necessity. So are checks and balances to maintain excellence and fairness, to check power, and to limit the amount of misinformation and its effects on public discourse.

Yet author-pays publishing models, along with increasing competition for academic reputation, are shifting the power from readers to authors. For exemple, eLife recently announced2 that from January 31, 2023, the journal will publish all research it peer-reviews as “reviewed preprints”3. This will allow authors to decide whether or not to revise their manuscript in light of reviewers’ comments and make the latest version of the revised preprint the official version (alternatively, authors can submit the revised preprint to another journal). eLife will also publish the examiners’ reports and an assessment4 of each preprint reviewed that ranks the significance of the findings as “benchmark”, “fundamental”, “important”, “valuable”, or “useful”, and their strength as “outstanding”, “convincing”, “convincing”, ‘solid”, ‘incomplete’ or ‘inadequate’. eLife is thus determined to become a rating filter for readers – a complex and imprecise filter5, if judged by these rating keywords. Yet experimentation in scholarly publishing should be applauded6.

By separating manuscript selection from peer review (as also allowed Common reviewan initiative of the European Molecular Biology Organization and ASAPbiosince December 2019), eLife will stop screening manuscripts after peer review and therefore will implicitly ask its readers to further evaluate any revised preprints that the journal will publish. After all, consistency and reliability in the quality of manuscript selection prior to peer review is difficult to maintain, and removing reviewers’ grip on the progress and fate of a manuscript can condition their will and their dedication to reviewing the work. Fairness will also be difficult to maintain, especially in the face of a financial exchange – the article processing fee – based solely on an initial screening decision (the peer review of the manuscript) by an integrated practicing scientist in the same university system of incentives and rewards. The trust and reputation of eLife as a brand, and therefore their quality as a filter, can be gauged by the amount of incomplete and inadequate research on the journal’s website.

As consumers, evaluators and producers of research, researchers are compelled to seek excellence and rigor. However, how these are perceived and the degree to which they are followed are influenced by the actual incentives and constraints when researchers act as authors, reviewers or readers. Without peer review, authors can remain blind to biases that may affect the rigor of their research findings. When they assume the role of reviewer, their views and requests are balanced by those of other experts and are overseen by the editors. As readers, they demand and benefit from the expertise and caution of their peers. Peer review therefore serves as a filter for quality and robustness, and provides a healthy balance between skepticism and implicit Yet for peer review to work well, it requires appropriate incentives and constraints, as well as careful management by publishers. This is what the scholarly journal system provides.