Behavioral and Brain Sciences – An example of Discursive Peer Review
Cambridge University Press published the first issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) in 1978 and, in so doing, established a new forum for discussion of important and often controversial research in cognitive science. Founding Editor Stevan Harnad was inspired to develop the journal based on the format that the journal Current Anthropology pioneered, “open peer commentary”. This consisted of eliciting and publishing non-anonymous commentary on a peer-reviewed “target article” from a dozen or more specialists across disciplines, co-published with the author’s response. While public comments on published articles have become commonplace, in 1978 the ability to do this was essentially limited to a formal “Letter to the Editor”. Interestingly, the exigencies of this multiple-component, serially edited format further pushed BBS to be one of the first journals with electronic submission, taxing authors preferring their usual publication habits to submit in online-compatible formats. Fortunately, not too many potential contributors were lost, due to yeoman labor of editorial assistants over the initial transition.
An Open Peer Commentary journal is none of the following:
1: a specialty journal publishing experimental reports
2: a theoretical journal publishing formal theoretical work
3: a review journal publishing surveys of research areas
4: a general journal publishing syntheses of research areas for the non-specialist
BBS, though it has some features of all four, is instead the following. By presenting controversial viewpoints worthy of argument, and by soliciting commentary from multiple disciplinary perspectives, BBS generates the information sharing, immediacy, and cross-stimulation of a research conference coupled with the discipline of a formally refereed medium. BBS is often compared to a review journal, but that generality misses its unique features. Review journals publish syntheses of some aspect of a field and the editors of such journals usually encourage an even, encyclopedic and non-controversial tone. BBS attempts to elicit the interest of a vast community interested in the point versus counterpoint flavor it offers, and encourages its authors and commentators to be pointed and direct (though always civil!) in their interchanges. Neither is BBS an early version of a blog with commentaries. Target articles are extensively reviewed and edited to conform to this unique presentation style as well as verified for the quality of their content before publishing. Commentaries are invited and subject to editorial review, using editorial gatekeeping to protect readers from unreadable volumes of unconsidered verbiage. Fortunately, a thesis-driven, argumentative style comes naturally to most researchers, though civility sometimes requires editorial “encouragement”.
Specifically, BBS publishes a “Treatment” which consists of a Target Article, 10–25 short Commentaries, and an Author Response to those Commentaries by the Target Article authors. This format is also applied to special issues on specific topics, and to recently published books accepted by the Editors as meeting the criteria for Open Peer Commentary. The format has undergone evolution – until approximately 2002, commentaries and responses had grown to 50 or more in number, extending over multiple issues and years, becoming impossible to follow. Now, somewhat shorter commentaries are limited to 25 (or as close to that as possible given statistical variation in rates if response to commentary solicitation), with a single response to the collective. The hope is that a Treatment might be seen as intellectual object possessing the dramatic unities, and perhaps read at one sitting by an ambitious reader. Expectations of speedier publishing have resulted in the target article being published and citable before commentary-response is complete. Competition for the 25 Commentary slots is excessively severe and constrained, with requests for commentary often exceeding slots by a factor of 10. In a few instances, BBS tried extending continuing commentary to a journal relevant to the target article, but a truly satisfactory solution to this problem remains under natural selection.