Contributing to Peer Review: Guidance for Early-Career Researchers

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Scott Chiesa from Brunel University London reports back from a peer review workshop for early-career researchers organised by Sense About Science

Image Credit: Freddy The Boy

Image Credit: Freddy The Boy, flickr

The process of peer review – in which experts in a particular scientific field must scrutinise scientific findings before they are accepted for publication – has long been the ‘gold-standard’ method employed by the scientific community to ensure the validity of findings reported in the literature. Considering the importance of a method that underpins almost all of modern science, guidance for early-career researchers on how to effectively get involved and contribute to the process can be surprisingly scarce. I attended a recent workshop organised by the charitable trust Sense About Science as part of their Voice of Young Science programme, which provided an opportunity for young scientists from a range of disciplines to come together to hear the opinions of a panel of experts involved in the process, as well as having the chance to debate the challenges facing peer review today.

The session opened with short talks in which each of the panellists discussed their roles within the field of peer review and their opinions on its effectiveness in ensuring that scientific integrity is maintained. An opening presentation from Dr. Irene Hames from the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE) laid out the traditional method of pre-publication review, and highlighted certain challenges to this system, such as reliance on impact factors when submitting and the rejection of sound scientific discoveries due to the editorial selection process. Further insight into the work of a journal editor was provided by Dr. Sarah Edwards, who discussed her role as a co-editor of the journal Research Ethics, before the talks were concluded by Stephen Curry (Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London) with a discussion on the importance of contributing to peer review and some thoughts on the most effective way to carry out the process.

Following a question and answer session with the panellists, the final part of the workshop allowed participants to engage with each other in a discussion on the many issues surrounding peer review today – including the role it plays in science, the effect it has on quality, and challenges to the system that may affect its viability. Enthusiastic discussion highlighted the fact that, like any process, peer review is far from perfect. Critics of the technique have often pointed out the ease by which it can be manipulated: fraudulent data can be difficult to identify when carefully put together and plagiarism can easily go undetected. Panellists agreed however that whilst all professions may have the unfortunate presence of a dishonest minority in their midst, the peer review process allows work carried out to be scrutinised and challenged by those who know it best, both pre-and post-publication. Questions were also asked as to why peer review – if it is indeed the gold-standard method of validating scientific discoveries – is so often ignored by the general public and the media? Much of this is likely due to a lack of awareness of its benefits outside the scientific community; a situation Sense About Science are attempting to rectify with their excellent Ask For Evidence campaign.

Overall, the workshop gave an excellent insight into the peer review process and guidance on how to best approach it. For those wishing to find out more, an accessory pamphlet ‘Peer Review: The nuts and bolts’ is available from the Sense About Science website, as are details on future events.

Scott Chiesa is a cardiovascular physiologist at Brunel University, London

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