Peer Review: what’s the point?

In her guest blog, Jillian Hart discusses some thoughts she had after attending Sense About Science's workshop - Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts at St Andrew's University, Scotland, in November 2014.

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As academics (and humans), we embody critical thinking. We question, debate, discuss and challenge. As an early career researcher (ECR) sometimes I feel as though I question everything, including myself. What do I have to contribute? Who would listen to me? Who would want my opinion?

Peer review likely isn’t daunting to the academic veteran. But for PhD students, early career researchers and other novice academics, submitting your first peer review can be terrifying. Commenting, giving advice, suggesting changes, and questioning. Re-thinking, over-thinking, spending days going over your own comments! For the ECR anything new is daunting.

Peer review, in my opinion, is particularly nerve-racking as you’re dealing with someone else’s work. You could be commenting and giving suggestions to someone who has more academic experience in the bottom drawer of their desk than you have gained in your whole career so far.

Although early career peer reviewing can cause apprehension, we need to remember not to fall into the trap of thinking our comments aren’t as valuable and our review won’t count as much as those of other people. Everyone had to write a first review. No one was born having contributed hundreds of reviews and being instantaneously experienced.

At the peer review workshop run by Sense About Science – Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts – the trepidation in submitting a first review was common. I attended the workshop to learn more about the peer review process in the hope that it would help me with some of my own peer review anxieties. While it certainly answered many of my questions, it also got me thinking about other aspects of peer review. I went away thinking about what benefits we, collectively and individually, can get by being part of the peer review process.

There is already a lot of debate about peer review, the positives, the negatives, the alternatives and this blog is not to regurgitate this. But if peer review is unpaid, time-consuming and sometimes a little painful (mentally – I certainly hope not physically!) then it’s hardly surprising that some might think,”what’s the point?!”

The 2009 Sense About Science Peer Review survey found that 90% of those asked why they participated in peer review said they did so because they consider it as part of their role in the academic community. For an ECR it can mean gaining valuable experience as well as feeling acknowledged – someone has approached you and asked for your thoughts, and little things like this can make a big impact on our confidence and self-assurance.

One of the more prickly questions is should we be getting paid for it? Do we want to be paid for it? This is a thorny topic and opinions are certainly divided. I like the idea of sticking to traditions. Doing it because we want to play our part, give something back.

Most things have a price these days (usually an expensive one). So I find it wonderful that in this age of consumerism, materialistic and money-orientated society that there remains a review system where people use their own time, unpaid, to critically review others’ papers. Regardless of whether people are doing it to gain experience, get noticed, or increase their chances of future papers being published, the fact remains that there is a thriving community of people willing to contribute and commit their time without the benefit of being paid. I think that’s something to be proud of. To be a part of that remarkable community, I think that’s ‘the point’ for many people.

Without the peer review workshop, I wouldn’t have really thought about the peer review process in much depth. The workshop provoked questions and ideas that I hadn’t thought about before – and likely wouldn’t ever have thought about. If you’re in the early stages of your research career and want to know more about the peer review process then Sense About Science peer review workshops are fantastic to learn, ask and exchange ideas with fellow peers.

Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts is a free half-day workshop for early career researchers and explores how peer review works, how to get involved, the challenges to the system, and the role of peer review in helping the public to evaluate research claims. Sense About Science will be organising two workshops again this year, one in London and one in Scotland, more information is available here.

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6 Comments

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Knut Holt

Peer review often does not work properly. That was shown amply when a Norwegian oral cancer researcher 10 years ago made a scandal by getting published per reviewed articles based on totally false research data in prestigious international journals. Since then the man has got back is doctor license.

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Mark

Saying that peer review doesn’t work because a few cases of fraud slip through is like saying that seat belts don’t work, because we still have traffic fatalities. You need to look at things in aggregate. For example, when fraud occurs, is its caught? Is the “damage” to the literature repaired (new knowledge, retraction of fraud, etc). The fact that the fraud was caught – and you know about it – actually suggests that the peer review system does work, doesn’t it?

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Tom Cloyd MS MA

Knut, all distributions in the real world (well, most!) have variance > 0. In the academic community we therefore can expect to find some bad actors. So what? Isolated cases demonstrate the fact of variance, but say nothing about central tendency.

Of COURSE peer review sometimes doesn’t work well. That doesn’t justify characterizing this as “often does not work properly”. That’s a total non sequitur…unless, of course you have some supporting data.

Just a thought and a needed corrective, I think.

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Mark

An important thing for early career researchers to remember is that peer review is not just about the article you are reviewing, but also about the reviewer. Carefully reviewing an article, checking sources (and possible opposing viewpoints) not only helps broaden your own knowledge but should give you perspective on what your articles will go through and hopefully improve your own writing and critical thinking. So if someone asks you to do a review … go for it!

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Abe silvers

peer review reflects the biases of the reviewer. Older reviewers may be restrained by their experiences leading to one perspective. It is the the younger reviewer who may think out the box who may make the best contributions. Your perspective may be the important one
Stick to your guns.

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