Inverting Power Imbalances in the Peer Review Process with PREreview

  • In today’s academic circles, the peer review process is largely conducted behind closed doors by institutional gatekeepers, resulting in an opaque decision-making process that consistently disadvantages researchers from historically marginalized populations and under-resourced institutions. 
  • We’ve been working with PREreview since 2019 to invert this power imbalance by helping to build a new open source platform that supports a more inclusive, community-oriented form of peer review based on equity, openness, and collaboration.
  • Our work on the ongoing project and its equity-based goals served as a strong parallel to our own organizational efforts to shift power imbalances by cultivating community convening, building capacity, and using design to change who technology serves.

Note: a separate post detailing specific design challenges and solutions from our PREreview collaboration is available here.

Systems of power often work to entrench the status quo in order to maintain the position of those at the top at the expense of everyone else. In the digital world, we see this through Big Tech’s utilization of surveillance capitalism, creation of filter bubbles, and general negation of informed user consent. Yet such systems of power are commonplace across virtually all sectors and areas of work – including academia, where the dissemination of knowledge is centered on a publication model that prioritizes profit over openness and knowledge sharing. The peer review process today is largely conducted behind closed doors by institutional gatekeepers, resulting in an opaque decision-making process that consistently disadvantages researchers from historically marginalized groups and under-resourced institutions. 

In an effort to change that, we’ve been working for the past two years with the incredible team at PREreview to help build a new open source platform that supports a more inclusive, community-oriented form of preprint peer review based on equity, openness, and collaboration. PREreview’s efforts focus on bridging working open practices with preprints – complete versions of research manuscripts that are shared openly online prior to journal-organized peer review. By building these open practices with the community, PREreview aims to increase diversity and support all researchers to build skills around constructive peer review and participate in the peer review processes. With the project continuing to gain traction across a growing community of global researchers, we’re excited to share an overview of our collaboration to date.

PREreview, power imbalances, and the essential role of equity in tool design

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues abound within academia today, where traditional publication gatekeepers are disproportionately male and from the United States or Europe, and whose affiliated institutions are almost always well-connected and well-funded. As a result of these systemic inequities, research is usually reviewed within networks – reinforcing biases around which institutions and which researchers get to advance knowledge. To begin addressing this problem, more researchers from underrepresented groups and regions must be included in the peer review and publication process. Yet with the status quo as is, few opportunities exist for this type of change to be implemented within the existing system and technical submission processes.

In response, PREreview was founded in 2017 with the goal of building a new, more open and equitable way of evaluating scholarly work. In the organization’s own words:

PREreview gives systematically disadvantaged scientists better ways to find a voice, train, and engage in peer review. Our work is a direct response to the flawed way scientific research is evaluated. Behind closed doors, a handful of unpaid reviewers—selected opaquely and mainly through personal connections—use subjective criteria to decide the fate of a research article. This arcane process is slow and disadvantages researchers from historically underrepresented groups. PREreview closes obvious gaps in the process to make research and how it’s evaluated more equitable. We train researchers in giving and receiving feedback, we engage communities of underrepresented researchers, and we implement measures to reflect on personal bias.

PREreview identified preprints – which are complete versions of scientific manuscripts made freely available online prior to journal-organized peer review – as a way to separate the dissemination and evaluation of knowledge from the current inequitable system of traditional publication. By creating an open community in which preprints are valued as a source of information that can benefit from a community-oriented and transparent forms of peer review, PREreview is helping to make academia more inclusive and equitable – while also contributing to speeding the rate of scientific progress around the world. 

Changing academia by changing who technology serves

For the past two years, we’ve been collaborating with the PREreview team to help implement their vision of a more equitable and open research and publication process. At the core of this effort was finding a way to build an open source platform that could serve as not only a tool on which the preprint evaluation work could be performed, but also a space through which community could be fostered. 

A review of the systems in place revealed that the inequities present across academia were also embedded in the design of the tools and technology used to prop up the processes of peer review and knowledge dissemination. Our emphasis on shifting power and increasing publishing accessibility therefore required any work we performed to be done with an equity lens in place. In designing the open source platform, we needed to ensure we centered the populations who were being systematically excluded from the traditional publishing process. We needed, in short, to listen to them and prioritize their needs.

Our team did so by conducting user interviews and testing platform applications, while also supporting the project with product strategy through thought partnership. What are we building? Why are we building it? Who is it serving? These types of questions were emphasized throughout our workshops, coaching, and technology design to ensure that the UI and UX design never lost sight of the researchers who have, until now, been overlooked and excluded in such processes.

Ultimately, we found our work on the ongoing project and its equity-based goals served as a strong parallel to our own organizational efforts to shift power imbalances in the digital sphere by cultivating community convening, building capacity, and using design to change who technology serves. We’re excited to see what happens next.

PREreview Co-founder and Director Daniela Saderi said:

Simply Secure has been instrumental not only in centering our values into the design of our preprint review platform, but also in showing us how to best listen to the needs of our communities and work together to shape a more equitable future of scholarly evaluation.

Read more about our PREreview-specific design support and solutions here.

Credits

Project Contributors: Georgia Bullen, Katie Wilson, Carissa Yao, Lorraine Chen, Eileen Wagner

With support from PREreview, this work was funded by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Wellcome Trust, and the Mozilla Foundation.

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