Do papers reporting uninteresting null results or confirmational results need to go through the same peer review process as papers reporting significant and novel results? Or do they require only passing a perfunctory editorial review?
Recently, over lunch, a friend and senior researcher at Cornell told me, quite emphatically, “I never review for PLoS ONE anymore. I spend hours going over the manuscript and writing detailed recommendations for improving the author’s paper, and the editor just discounts them all and publishes the paper as-is.”
Essentially, this researcher felt insulted that an editor would call on him for his expertise, but then ignore what he had to say. In a marketplace that is largely run on free labor, devaluing the work of volunteers is a risky strategy.
When my friend reviews a paper, Cornell is essentially paying for his time, overhead, and benefits. As a consultant, when I accept an invitation to review, all of these costs come out of my own pocket. I pay for the privilege of reviewing a manuscript, which is why I accept so few invitations these days and try to do them only when business is slow.
For me to accept an invitation to review, a paper has to report novel and interesting results. If it has been circulated as a preprint on arXiv, then I don’t benefit from seeing it a second time as a reviewer. Similarly, the paper must also pique my interest in some way. Reviewing a paper that is reporting well-known facts (like documenting the growth of open access journals, for instance) is just plain boring. Test a new hypothesis, apply a new analytical technique to old data, or connect two disparate fields, and you’ll get my attention and my time.
The only other category of manuscripts that I’ll accept for review are those that are so biased or fatally flawed that it would be a disservice to the journal or to the community to allow them to be published. These papers must really have the potential to do harm (by distorting the literature or making a mockery of the journal) for me to review them.
I recently submitted a manuscript to a multidisciplinary journal that credits itself with “fast publication” and “rigorous peer review.” I sent it there because my paper is just an update of an older study (testing the effect of open access on article citations), and the results still show no preferential effects. The journal claims to accept articles based solely on the soundness of its methodology and not on the significance or novelty of its results. Plus, the journal is open access and publication fees are low. If the journal can deliver on all of these promises, it will provide great value to many authors with manuscripts like mine.
But can the journal provide enough value to reviewers who are called upon to vet my work?
If other reviewers are like me (and my senior researcher), they will turn down the invitation to review. The manuscript I just submitted offers little incentive to the reviewer; I imagine that only academics with lots of time, a strong sense of duty, or a vehement dislike of my work will accept the responsibility. If reviewers were paid for their time, there may be a market for this kind of review. I just don’t know whether there is much of a voluntary review market for these kind of manuscripts. And if this article can’t find two willing reviewers, it cannot proceed along the path to publication.
The rise of journals specifically designed to publish scientifically uninteresting results is predicated upon finding competent reviewers, and it is not difficult to imagine that some manuscripts may never find individuals willing to accept that role. While the journal may promise fast publication from the date of acceptance, getting to acceptance may be, by far, the slowest part of publication. In the worst case scenario, a manuscript would languish in a sort of purgatory, waiting for the gates of peer review to open one day and allow the manuscript to finally ascend toward publication, or be returned to the author years later with a feeble apology from the editor.
This makes me wonder whether journals that publish manuscripts reporting null or confirmational results really need to put them through the time, energy, and expense of peer review. Papers that report on significant and novel results have an opportunity to change the direction of science and the standard of medical care, which is why it so important to vet them so carefully. But uninteresting null or merely confirmational results? 
Perhaps all that is needed is to send null and confirmational results through perfunctory editorial review. These articles may only require passing a checklist of required elements before being published in a timely fashion. The result may be a cheaper and faster route to publication, and for some kinds of publications, this is exactly the desired outcome.
 Negative results may be interesting if they challenge existing dogma or standard of care.