We recently spoke with Adam Etkin, Founder and Managing Director of PRE, a division of STRIATUS. Adam is a veteran of the publishing industry and formed PRE to assist members of the scholarly publishing community who are committed to preserving an ethical, rigorous peer review process.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and your current role?
A. I entered the scholarly journal publishing field in 1998. I wanted to make a full-time career of web design, which was something I was doing on a part-time basis. I got a job as web master at Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., an STM publisher which was located close to my home. Honestly, I knew absolutely nothing about scholarly publishing at that point, but I quickly fell in love with the industry and the peer review process. Over time, my role expanded and I took on more diverse responsibilities, many of which were related to technology, peer review and metrics.
Over the years it seemed there was growing criticism of the peer review process, and I was constantly thinking about how those concerns might be addressed, which is how I came up with the idea for PRE (Peer Review Evaluation). Eventually I moved on to become the Director of Publishing for the Academy of Management, and I was very lucky that AOM allowed me to pursue my Masters Degree in publishing and really supported my efforts related to PRE. I wrote my thesis about peer review and the PRE concept.
As I did this, I was always gathering feedback from people in the industry. This led me to reach out to Kent Anderson, who at that time was the President of SSP and CEO of STRIATUS/JBJS. STRIATUS/JBJS were so enthusiastic about the idea that they hired me to build the PRE concept as Managing Director. We now have resources at our disposal that allow us to bring PRE services to the market and sustain and build products such as PRE-val, the current offering.
A. We first started out with the concept for a metric called “PRE-score.” What we discovered was that the more pressing need was for researchers to have a way of simply verifying peer review had been conducted. Most journals claim to conduct peer review, but several high-profile cases of predatory publishing, unethical editorial practices, conflicts of interest, dual publication, and plagiarism have combined to erode trust and make it even harder for researchers to share knowledge and advance scientific inquiry. This led us to develop PRE-val, which is a service that allows us to work with the journal and publisher to provide independent validation of the review process.
Q. Do you think this has the potential to improve the quality of peer review across the board?
A. Enthusiastically my answer is “Yes!” Whenever we talk with people about peer review, it’s often compared to a “black box.” There’s this attitude that there is some kind of “illuminati” operating to repress new ideas and control scientific output. This is an exaggeration, but I do think more trust, transparency and openness related to peer review is something everyone agrees would be a good thing.
Having said that, there’s disagreement on exactly what “openness” means. The desire to remain anonymous does not always, or usually, equate with something nefarious. In fact, anonymity allows people to speak freely without fear of reprisals or career consequences. This is good for peer review in most disciplines. But in certain cases, more open approaches may make sense.
It’s also important to accept that there isn’t just one “right” way to do peer review. As with degrees of openness, a review system that works for one journal, may not work for another. Pre-print services, pre-publication review, post-publication review, open review, are all valid approaches as long as best practices and guidelines such as those offered by COPE are adhered to. We shouldn’t and don’t have to pick one method.
The beauty of PRE is that we support all of these approaches.
Our services create incentives for journals to use best practices in peer review and increase the transparency around their process. At the most basic level, we help to answer the simple question, “Was this peer reviewed?” That alone is very valuable in today’s journal and article environment.
Q. Peer review has come under fire recently. Do you think that criticism has been fair?
A. Yes and no. Some of the critics are very vocal and prone to hyperbole, which in my opinion doesn’t help. I’m all for debate and constructive criticism, but let’s be open-minded and keep an eye on the big picture. No one claims the current system is perfect, but overall I think it works very well when conducted properly. There are multiple surveys which show that the overwhelming majority of those in the research community value peer review and think it’s a necessity. That doesn’t mean we can’t build upon the current foundation and work to improve things, which is what we’re doing with PRE.
Q. Do you feel that early career peer reviewers are adequately recognized for their work? If not, will PRE do anything to remedy that?
A. I don’t think reviewers and editors in general are recognized adequately for their work. Early career reviewers certainly need more credit for their participation. PRE wants to be part of efforts to recognize and reward those who contribute to peer review. But we also want to be able to do that in a way that’s sensitive to the need for confidentiality when desirable. There are organizations such as ORCID, Sense About Science, and others who we view as living within the same ecosystem as PRE. I’m not sure any one provider will be able to come up with a single solution. I think we can join together to address this need, and there are already discussions occurring related to this.
Q. What’s next for PRE and when do you anticipate it will go live?
A. Internal technology development is scheduled to be complete by October 2014. We continue to talk with third-party providers about how PRE services will be integrated with their existing systems. The public launch of PRE-val is expected to be in November 2014. Beyond our core products, we are also planning a series of surveys and webinars intended to support and educate the entire community about peer review. I think some of the most important work to be done is to create incentives for best practices around the process and to recognize those who work hard at ethical peer review.