Societies Research Libraries // May 13th, 2014

Peer review: fundamentals and the future


peer review

Image by Harriet Groom. Click to enlarge.

I recently attended Sense About Science’s “Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts” workshop, run as part of their Voice of Young Science program, to discuss the merits of peer review and its impact on science communication.  So, what is peer review and should you care?  Yes everyone should care!  Peer review is a process that scientific findings undergo before they are published in a journal.  It involves several people in your field (your peers) assessing the quality of your work, usually anonymously.  This process also applies to most applications for funding.  As a practicing scientist, peer review is something you take for granted and is only usually contemplated when trying to publish a paper or when you are invited to consider one for publication.  We sometimes forget that peer review of our work is crucial, especially for the public’s perception of science.  Based on my own experiences, and following scientific coverage in the media, I believe that accurate and unbiased reporting of science is extremely important.  This is facilitated by the iterative quality control step provided by peer review.  Although the various peer review systems are not flawless, I think they are our best options, but I was eager to see whether the workshop would change my mind.

 

The half-day workshop featured discussion of these topics as well as a panel.  The latter included Alice Ellingham, Director at Editorial Office Limited, who spoke about the role of peer review services in the process and how they interact with journals and authors.  This was an eye-opening insight into an aspect of article review that is not much acknowledged.  She spoke about challenges they face in streamlining peer review, a necessarily time-consuming process, as well as the importance of providing an audit trail.  This is imperative in a world where one leaked email can influence the public’s whole perception of an issue and the credibility of scientists as a whole.  John Gilbert, Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Science Education spoke about the requirements of being a reviewer in assessing a manuscript and in furthering the described science.  He also highlighted the difficulty in finding good, reliable reviewers given the commitment required from individuals in increasingly small communities of researchers.  Should the time that scientists spend on this important task be more formally recognized?  Finally, Elizabeth Moylan, Biology Editor at BioMed Central, spoke about her experiences overseeing editorial policies and peer review.  This included consideration of newer approaches to peer review such as open models where the reviewers and authors know each other – something quite foreign to me as a molecular biologist. 

It was clear from both the existence of the workshop and its discussions that the traditional peer review process is not perfect.  This was highlighted in January with the explosion on twitter of #SixWordPeerReview, with many tweets parodying common poor reviewing habits.  Jokes aside, these do highlight the lack of training scientists receive before embarking on peer review and the difficulties that come with blind review. 

Alternative models exist including F1000, eLIFE, and Peerage of Science with post-publication “crowd-sourced” review and other review systems.  Personally, I believe that evolution will determine the best system.  If new models with faster publication systems and high impact arrive on the scene, then this will drive change, as we have seen with open access.  However, I believe that speed and transparency must not be championed at the cost of quality.  Once a piece of work is in the public domain, then the lay person is at the mercy of their own knowledge and the context in which the science is reported for its interpretation.  One can argue that science is self-correcting but in the biomedical sciences, where stakes are high, *peer* review is essential and, in my opinion, should occur pre-publication. 

Sense About Science want the public to ask “Is it peer reviewed?” when they read any sort of scientific claim.  We should be teaching peer review in schools alongside critical analysis to allow future generations to make informed judgements and to be wary of sensationalist or biased reporting.  At the same time, scientists should be better trained and acknowledged in their roles as judges of their peers.

Join the debate and ask “Is it peer reviewed?”. 

  • Jill Gambaro

    Thank you Harriet for a very informative article. I am not a scientist, I’m a patient and I’ve written from this perspective, running into many barriers because of the peer-reviewed system. I do still think that a patient’s perspective has an important place in the conversation, but not when it comes to reporting on the specifics of scientific investigation. Your article gave me a greater appreciation of the peer-review process.

    Still, I hope that crowd-sourcing can be effectively integrated into the research process in order to reduce delays in getting treatments to patients at the clinical level.

  • Harriet Groom

    Thank you Jill for your very kind comments. I can entirely appreciate frustrations you may have with the time delay involved in the peer review system, as a patient, and I think that patient consultation is an essential part of treatments getting to the clinic. However, my personal experience at the interface of basic research and patients’ hopes and has made me very wary of instantaneous release of preliminary data that can have an impact of patient welfare. Thorough discussion of new breakthroughs is obviously essential although unfortunately you need experts to first make sure that flawed research doesn’t hit the headlines.
    I’m glad that my article was informative and I hope it stimulates discussion!