How does open assessment renew the scientific conversation?


The polarization of the discussions but also the scale of the public health issues in the debate on the scientific reliability of preprints have not always allowed the general public to grasp the importance of the peer review process – also called “evaluation” – for the functioning of the scientific community.

The publishing model in today’s academic world is increasingly tightly regulated in most disciplines. The rules to which it is subject are intended to promote the transparency of publications by subjecting them to a complex editorial circuit which involves different people who are more or less independent of each other.

The classic evaluation

Authors submit their draft articles to entities called “journals”  ; at the origin of these are found both learned societies formed into associations, research teams, university presses and more or less generalist and more or less powerful independent commercial publishers ( publishers ).

True collective entities, journals are organized into centers of responsibility, or committees, and take charge of two essential stages in transforming a text into a published scientific article: the evaluation stage ( reviewing ) and the editorial preparation stage ( spelling corrections, standardization, layout, etc.).

The evaluation stage , which conditions the acceptance or rejection of the article, is fundamental. Journals are responsible for setting up conditions so that this evaluation guarantees an “objective” treatment of the texts submitted to them, avoiding conflicts of interest and personal settling of scores.

This evaluation must also offer authors the opportunity to significantly improve their texts, not only to make them publishable, but also, through them, to advance all scientific knowledge on a given subject.

For all these reasons, in a highly competitive and sometimes frankly toxic general academic context, the preferred framework for expertise is double- blind peer review : the author does not know the names of the people evaluating his text and vice versa. As for the expert, he or she is chosen from the academic world in view of his or her own work and experience on the subjects covered in the article.

This general anonymity, associated with the confidentiality of the content of the evaluation (the expert reports are directly communicated to the author but are not made public), is considered by a majority of the academic world as the best guarantee of a sound and effective evaluation. It is also the one that is at the heart of the “prestige economy” specific to scientific publications and which recent studies have shown allows publishing houses to exert a significant influence on scientific research .

New formats

The double-blind evaluation is not without flaws. It did not impose itself in the scientific community until late, in the 1970s. It is not uncommon for it to lead to lapidary, even frankly violent criticisms – a fault facilitated by the anonymous dimension of the exchanges in which it takes place. ‘registered. Authors and reviewers may feel frustrated at not being able to exchange “between responsible adults”.

Other forms of peer review are beginning to gain in importance in the scientific community, according to two principles: on the one hand, that of transparency, on the other hand, that of distribution. Transparency consists in the author or evaluator knowing each other’s names and being able to dialogue. The distribution makes it possible to open the proofreading not to a restricted circle of experts specifically sponsored by a journal, but to anyone wishing to immerse themselves in the article to read it again and comment on it.

All of these new forms of evaluation correspond to what is known as open peer review , which has acquired platforms such as to implement these principles. The European e-learning platform FOSTER also offers a complete online course for training in open evaluation, a sign of the growing interest in this new way of evaluating .

Open peer review formats have several advantages:

  • the versions of articles submitted to journals are of better quality at the outset (because the version is publicized, the authors and authors generally take more care as to the content and form of their text);
  • reviews tend to be more benevolent;
  • the arguments and counter-arguments can be published and thus contribute to the public scientific debate.

But the ideal scientific conversation that seems to be taking shape here cannot be achieved without damage. For example, young researchers or those without permanent status may feel better protected by the anonymity of the double-blind evaluation than by the exposure represented by the disclosure of their name, or even the public posting of their assessments.

Even open evaluation requires safeguards to allow the scientific community to dialogue and form a community, without risk to the most vulnerable.

Openness and kindness

Other alternatives, within the more traditional framework of peer review , are also put in place: for example, not transmitting the evaluation reports as they are, but summarizing them, redacting the most violent forms but also the most debatable in reformulating unnecessarily hurtful formulas.

This also makes it possible to avoid paradoxical injunctions: “what should I do when the first evaluation tells me above all not to do what the second asks me to develop? “. This takes the weight off the shoulders of the reviewers, who are no longer asked for an opinion “with a view to publication” (or not), but simply an opinion on the text.

An evaluation designed, and announced from the outset, as being open allows for better collective work. Everyone can thus promote their contribution to scientific research – the annual or ongoing publication of the names of the people who have contributed to the evaluations in the journals allows recognition of this necessary but invisible step. And the work of publishing professionals, responsible in particular for preparing the copy – or version to be published – is also facilitated.

Validated texts that have been well worked on beforehand, proofread by several pairs of eyes and taken up following constructive exchanges between peers are much better both in terms of content and form, particular care having generally been taken to the form of the text given that it has already circulated prior to its publication. These different qualitative elements in favor of open peer review have been documented in several publications which offer quantified analyzes of the positive or negative impact of the different models, blind or open peer review .

These questions do not only arise for the publication of scientific articles. Proofreading and evaluation now punctuate research activity on a daily basis. In addition to articles in journals, the publication of chapters in books or complete books, applications for permanent positions, the awarding of prizes, medals and other distinctions, participation in conferences and conferences and the allocation of funding for travel or for carrying out research projects.

Alternately, evaluators and people evaluated are caught in a system of rewards that escapes them: researchers would no doubt need to rethink the qualities of dialogue, openness and benevolence that can allow the community scientist to operate more serenely.

To use these terms is not to make scientific practice a matter of “good feelings”, but to rethink the tangle of relationships that make it possible; these relationships, looked at in the face rather than swept under the carpet, show the interdependencies between the different actors and actresses who make scientific practices, instead of forms of individualization, “starification” and hierarchization. Journals are thus a good place to experiment with forms of transparency and pluralization.

To conclude, it should be noted that the elements presented here are intended to provoke a broad debate. They are based on our experience as a stakeholder, at one time or another, in the evaluation stage. Some pioneering experiences (such as the experience of the Vertigo magazine ) already offer food for thought. We hope that the scientific community as a whole will take it up and continue the debate.

Author Bios: Anne Baillot is University Professor in German Studies and Digital Humanities at Le Mans University, Anthony Pecqueux is Sociologist at the CNRS, Max Weber Center at Lumière Lyon 2 University, Cedric Poivret is PRAG/Doctor in Management Sciences, Specialist in the History of Managerial Thought at Gustave Eiffel University, Celine Barthonnat is Editor at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Julie Giovacchini is Research engineer in digital humanities and ancient sciences at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)