Peer Review – is it Working?

by | Feb 7, 2012 | Science Publishing | 0 comments

The title of the last Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting on the 24th January, “Peer Review – is it Working?” proved to be more of a rhetorical question than I had anticipated, mainly because the consensus was that peer review does, by and large work.  Following the presentations and subsequent discussions at the meeting however, my own thoughts coalesced around concerns for the kind of “peer” to which we refer when we talk of “peer review”. In the review of scientific publications and research proposals we tend to adhere to the definition of a “peer” as meaning “an expert, one who equals another in gift, ability, achievement or attainment”. This all seems very reasonable until one questions the disciplinary expertise of the “peer” which in practice tends to be the same as the discipline under review – and it is here I think we may be missing a trick – a trick with some important implications.

Science and technology has always had an impact on society, and while in the past this was perhaps seen to be something positive, developed and delivered for our collective good by a remote but trusted academic elite, empowered by government and a relatively ignorant electorate, it is now generally perceived in a different light.  The great strides made by science in the last century included massive expansion of education and learning, while the development of a few technologies for example, nuclear power, pesticides and transgenic crops, demonstrated the potential negative as well as positive aspects of scientific endeavour. The combination of an educated population more aware (if not wholly better informed) of science and the risks and opportunities offered by new technologies, and the old adage attributed to Alexander Pope, that “a little learning [knowledge] is a dangerous thing”, has created a climate of concern, promulgated by the media. While science has made significant advances in its communication of key issues, the nature of debate is such, that the evidence-based approach and rigour of the professional scientist is often embattled against emotive argument, opinions, rhetoric and dogma of the amateur in a public arena – an uneven playing field – where science is almost by default, the loser. One way to address this is to ensure that a debate regularly takes place using established scientific processes and rigour – at the time of peer review – where the “peers” are not just drawn from academia and the relevant disciplines, but from the educated lay public; by individuals conversant with the science and the issues who may be skeptical in their approach but are seen as representative of public interest in general.

To enable this form of wider engagement we might need to think in terms of creating two types of journal abstract, one – the normal technical abstract for the scientist, and a second written for the educated lay person detailing the context, key findings and their relevance to the scientific discipline and their wider social and economic value.  Such abstracts will in addition promote interdisciplinary scientific communication while also providing valuable readily available information for innovators and entrepreneurs.  We readily talk about open-access publishing, but we also need to be thinking in terms of open-availability publishing – and lay abstracts are one means by which this can be achieved, improving the availability of scientific information to the lay reader and encouraging more informed debate and ultimately, involvement.

Consideration of the value of communicating science among innovators and entrepreneurs, is an area that needs to be better taken into account as part of the process of decision-making in the funding of scientific research projects. There is general agreement that innovation is the key to economic growth and that the research base represents the single largest public investment delivering such innovation. However, it is also known that the UK, while excellent at discovery and invention, is relatively poor at innovation and the translation of science into economic and social benefit.  Given this, we have to question why the majority of decisions on the funding of research projects are made by scientists who have little or no understanding or experience of innovation. With an increasing emphasis being placed on demonstrating the value and impact of our science base, there is a need to include individuals in the peer review process awarding all research grants, who understand what it takes and how to deliver impact and innovation.

Overall, while there may be a general consensus that “Peer Review” is no way in crisis and generally appears to be working, there is clearly a need to ask a supplementary question which is – what is it in the future that we need “Peer Review” to achieve – and if the answer to this is: to assist in building trust between the scientific community and the public, to facilitate interdisciplinary research collaboration and to maximise uptake and translation of research into innovations of economic and social benefit – then we need to broaden the scope of our understanding of the meaning of “peer”, and engage a wider range of participants with different skill sets, in the process of review.

David Dent

CEO Dent Associates