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Table 6 Notable characteristics of the preferred designs for each intervention

From: Designs of trials assessing interventions to improve the peer review process: a vignette-based survey

Intervention Comments on the best study design according to experts
Training intervention The design recommended by the experts was an RCT with randomization of peer reviewers, set in several biomedical journals from different publishers, using actual manuscripts submitted to the journal. The choice of an RCT with randomization of peer reviewers has the advantage of being close to the real-life procedures of the peer review process, with the benefit of using randomization. The issue with the training intervention is its length in time. This raises issues related to poor adherence and missing outcome when peer reviewers randomized never assess a manuscript. The pairwise comparison was the second-ranked design. This design has the advantage of addressing the issue of manuscript variability, thus increasing statistical power, and avoiding the loss to follow-up problem, because no long-term follow up is needed. Such design has never been used to our knowledge. The cluster RCT and stepped wedge cluster RCT were not often chosen by the participants because of the risk of contamination, because peers can review for more than one journal at a time.
Addition of an expert (methodologist or statistician) The addition of an expert to the peer review process was preferably assessed with an RCT of manuscripts, set in several journals from different publishers, using the actual manuscripts submitted to the journal. The cluster RCT was the second preferred design for all three of the outcomes. This design has the advantage of including a large variety of reviewers and manuscripts, and it is logistically easy for the editors who do not have to change process for each manuscript. It is nevertheless a difficult design to put in place, as shown by its systematically low score in the feasibility rankings, and a very large number of clusters would be needed to compensate for the high variability between journals (publisher, editorial policies, subject area, quality of reviewers etc.). The interrupted time series set in a single journal was the preferred design in terms of feasibility. This study type is not randomized, which could potentially create bias.
Use of reporting guidelines checklist The favored designs to assess the use of reporting guidelines checklist was an RCT of manuscripts, set in several biomedical journals from several or a single publisher, using actual manuscripts. The choice to randomize manuscripts rather than peer reviewers is interesting in terms of logistics, because manuscripts receiving the intervention can be sent directly with the checklist. The preferred settings give a good external validity to the study.
Results-free peer review Our analysis suggests the factor influencing the most participant’s decision in their overall preference was the type of study. The favorite type of studies overall were the RCT of peer reviewers and the RCT of manuscripts. The choice of an RCT randomizing manuscripts for the results-free peer review seems appropriate because the intervention is held directly on the manuscript. The issue with the randomization of manuscripts in this situation is the possibility for peer reviewers to perform both with-results and results-free reviews. With the intervention having a potential learning effect, it would artificially increase the quality of reviews in the control group. This intervention has—to our knowledge—never been assessed, which is notable as it could help reduce the important bias towards positive results.
Use of incentives The use of incentives raised interesting comments from participants. Particularly, they highlighted that the existence of an incentive may encourage reviewers to accept invitations even if not fully qualified. In a similar way, reviewers in the incentive arm are likely to accept more reviews than the control arm, which raises some issues for the design.
Post-publication peer review It was one of the most innovative intervention we included in our study. Although this system has already been in place in several journals, such as F1000, it has, to our knowledge, never been assessed. This intervention is interesting because it changes the entire peer review process, not just the way peer reviews assess the manuscripts. The preferred type of study for this intervention was the randomization of manuscripts. Being randomized, this design would indeed lower the risk of bias of the study; however, it may be hard to implement such an intervention, because journals would have to manage two completely different peer review systems at the same time.