24

Recently several different, unrelated publishers suggested on their websites to join Publons, which is meant to acknowledge referees for peer-reviewing submitted manuscripts.

Publons even suggests to forward them emails to add all your past review work:

We've set up a process to make populating your review record as easy as possible: Search your inbox for "thank you review manuscript" Forward those emails to reviews@publons.com We'll verify and add your reviews to your profile (without showing their content or the title of the manuscripts)

This all sounds very iffy and hence my questions:

  1. Given their suggestion to forward [confidential] emailexchanges between journal and reviewer, is Publons a scientifically ethically sound initiative?
  2. Not a hoax?
  3. If it's ethically OK and not a hoax, what will it yield scientists in the long run, other than a verified referee record? Isn't reviewing expected from every researcher?

Related question on academia SE: Is it worth creating a profile with Publons?

  • 1
    Publons sounds like someone tried to make a fancier scientific word for minimum publishable units (MPUs). I do not know that much is lost from thinking otherwise. – Kimball Mar 19 at 15:02
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    @Kimball Yes, that's exactly what "publon" means; that word was in use even before that website existed: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publon . – Federico Poloni Mar 19 at 18:24
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    @FedericoPoloni Ah yes, I see Publons say on their website: The Publons name is an homage to the "publon", the "minimum unit of publishable material." But that makes me think that either their company is meant to be a joke or that they don't know what homage means. – Kimball Mar 20 at 2:02
11

It is probably legit, as it is owned by the behemoth company Clarivate, which does data analytics on all things science, engineering, and biotech. While it does not seem "unethical", it does seem like a business strategy to get peer review data and do analytics on it for profit.

I added one of my recent reviews, using the publisher's link, to test the site. Unfortunately, it shows the name of the paper that I reviewed in my profile. Although I could delete it, seems like you have to be very mindful about what you post and how you manage it, which equals adding more work to an already overworked schedule.

Peer review is a community service that we perform for the betterment of research. While it is one of the criteria used for academic promotion, it is not the most important, and therefore I do not think is worth the effort of using the site.

  • "do analytics on it for profit." It's hard to imagine how they could make much profit from the data. The main use I see is generating a list of people who will work for free as peer reviewers. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 5 at 2:49
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Do you know any peer reviewers that get paid? – o4tlulz Feb 5 at 3:28
  • @o4tlulz Yes, but it's unusual. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 5 at 10:02
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I can imagine some. A sneaky way to build an expertise database, or enrich some other data sources they already have. – Fomite Feb 5 at 22:27
19

Here is their current web page, which in contrast to the Google+ page you linked to appears to be up-to-date.

Although this is the first time I've seen this site, my impression is that it's ethically okay and not a hoax. That said, it also seems quite unnecessary to me, and I would not bother to use it.

What will it yield scientists in the long run?

-- I would estimate:

  1. With about 2% probability, the website will catch on and become popular. Probably this would be at the insistence of university administrators, who are often looking for new ways to measure and evaluate the performance of faculty.

    The website will yield another hoop for researchers to jump through, and possibly (as the website claims) to increased recognition of researchers who do an unusually good job of peer review.

  2. With about 98% probability, the website will largely be ignored, and the net effect on the scientific community will be nil.

In general, I would advocate ignoring advice originating from commercial publishers; personally, I would only consider using this site if I were urged to do so by scientists in my field or by administrators at my university.

12

The other answers already give several interesting angles; I want to add one here. Publons simply counts the number of peer reviews, not their quality. Hence it promotes pumping this number at the expense of their quality. This is a direction that has become increasingly more popular in evaluating researchers, but if you think about it it's the exact opposite of where we'd probably want academia to go.

Calling it "unethical" is probably too much, but it's definitely not a line of thought that I wish to support.

6

Some quick poking around uncovered this writeup in Science about the company, and Springer has a page where they describe their commitment to a trial run with the program. Those two alone are enough to make me think that this is likely a Real Thing™ and is likely safe.

Is it ethical? All it's doing is helping people call out their reviewing work. Not sure that ethics has a significant play here. Whether it's useful—which is how I'm interpreting your third question—isn't immediately apparent to me. I guess some people want to have their "volunteer" work called out, so this is their way of doing it. I don't see much value, personally. Maybe someone else will have a better answer here.

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    Thanks! regarding the ethical part - They suggest to forward (confidential?) emails from unrelated journals to include those reviews in ones review list. I thought that particularly iffy, as in, touching or breaching the confidentiality involved in reviewing. – AliceD Aug 14 '17 at 13:29
5

Here's an article from one of the co-founders. Seem to have a mission in mind: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-future-of-peer-review/

I also recently wrote a response to a similar question the other day: Is it worth creating a profile with Publons?

Roughly, the summary says:

Basically peer review is critical to efficient and trustworthy research. But lack of recognition means there's inadequate incentives and support, such as consideration by tenure panels or training for early-career researchers. By helping the community document their reviewing efforts, we'll raise the status of peer review and make sure people contributing are rewarded for it and the system helps bolster it to improve scholarly communication.

As for the ethical stuff, journals set their own editorial policies on Publons to make sure whatever reviews you add to your profile comply with the journal's policies. More here: publons.freshdesk.com/support

  • 1
    Thanks! Could you abstract the message in the Sci Am article? As of now this is more of a comment. – AliceD Aug 14 '17 at 13:30
  • Basically peer review is critical to efficient and trustworthy research. But lack of recognition means there's inadequate incentives and support, such as consideration by tenure panels or training for early-career researchers. By helping the community document their reviewing efforts, we'll raise the status of peer review and make sure people contributing are rewarded for it and the system helps bolster it to improve scholarly communication. – ResearchDog Aug 14 '17 at 16:24
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    As for the ethical stuff, journals set their own editorial policies on Publons to make sure whatever reviews you add to your profile comply with the journal's policies. More here: publons.freshdesk.com/support/solutions/articles/… – ResearchDog Aug 14 '17 at 16:28
4

Yes, Publons is a serious & stable initiative to add value to the work of reviewers.

Concerning your specific questions:

  1. There is a lot of discussion around this. In principle the website is collecting information submitted by users regarding peer review. As you can see from other answers and provided links, this information is made available to other (major) interconnected platforms. As a crude example, my ORCID is automatically aware of some of the reviews I submitted to Publons and has transferred this info to my Mendeley profile. I cannot control this flow of information. Whether the website will publish such information (e.g. review contents) depends on journal's official approval. This last bit sounds nice, but in practice this may be a major concern to individual authors/editors worried about the privacy of peer review communication, and apparently the platform takes the freedom to publish contents about any journals that have not officially communicated any restrictions. This last is a debatable practice.

  2. As said above, not a hoax.

  3. Actually two questions here. (3a) We cannot say for sure, though Publons is pushing some trends. By communicating other platforms and adding scores & stats, official Publons stats could endorse a contributing reviewer's performance CV. I have heard of peers submitting their Publons scores alongside grant applications. (3b) This question is rather broad. Peer reviewing (at any stage) of research is required to validate scientific literature, and it must be done by fellow researchers. In practice, some form of reviewing is inevitable to anyone writing a useful piece of literature. Formal, pre-publication peer review is provided under request, and nobody I know is officially obliged to participate. But most academics will tell you one is ethically bound to provide written peer reviews to editors every now and then... which doesn't mean truly they're doing it. As said, this is a denser discussion, and would probably fit in a discussion separate from Publons.

Personally, I support and use Publons. I value transparency regarding peer review, and I think this platform is offering exactly that. I however recommend caution in using the platform as you will bump into numerous conflicts of interests with your peers, most of which are implied.

4

In my experience, Publons mostly seems to work as promised.

I do note however that it uses third party cookies and trackers.

Furthermore, one has to assume the Clarivate firm is commercially motivated, and will eventually seek to monetize the data it collects via Publons. There have over the years been many instances of firms that initially offered a benign service to gain members, and then later switched into a more commercially aggressive mode of operation. It will be interesting to see how they develop their business model, and whether that is compatible with expectations from reviewers themselves.

One also has to assume that any database will eventually be shared, sold or hacked, and the results aggregated with other data to build a bigger picture.

Personally I am happy to use Publons at this stage, but I am cautious about what information I release.

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