Peer review: what lies behind the curtains?

Email: a.w.bateson@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Twitter: @a_w_bateson

For young researchers, one of the most daunting prospects is the publication of their first paper.  A piece of work that somebody has spent months or even years preparing must be submitted for the process of peer review. Unseen gatekeepers cast their judgement and work is returned either accepted, rejected or with required revisions. I attended the Sense about Science workshop entitled ‘Peer review: the nuts and bolts’, targeted at early career researchers (ECRs), with the intention of looking behind these closed doors. How are reviewers selected? Who can become a reviewer? Who makes the final decisions? This workshop provided an opportunity to interact directly with both journal editors and academics involved in the peer review process to obtain answers to such questions.

This workshop was primarily structured around a panel discussion consisting of Dr Amarachukwu Anyogu, a lecturer in microbiology at the University of Westminster; Dr Bahar Mehmani, a reviewer experience lead at Elsevier; Dr Sabina Alam, an editorial director at F1000Research; and Emily Jesper-Mir, the head of partnerships and governance at Sense about Science. In addition, there were also small group discussions amongst fellow attendees regarding advantages and disadvantages of peer review, potential alternatives, and the importance of science communication.

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The panel of (L-R) Dr Sabina Alam, Dr Amarachukwu Anyogu, Dr Bahar Mehmani and Emily Jesper-Mir provided a unique insight into the peer review process from the perspective of both editor and reviewer. Photograph credited to Sense about Science.

Recent headlines have highlighted fraud cases where impersonation and deceit have been used to manipulate the peer review process. Furthermore, fears regarding bias and sexism remain high amongst the academic community. It was hence encouraging to see such strong awareness from both participants and panellists regarding the flaws of the peer review. Post-publication review, open (named) reviews, and the submission of methods prior to the experiment are all ways either in use currently or proposed to increase the accountability and transparency of peer review. Each method brings its own problems however; for example, naming reviewers risks the potential for less critical responses, particularly from younger researchers not wanting to alienate more experienced academics with influence over their future career progression.

One key focus of the workshop was to encourage ECRs to become involved in the peer review process. In the first instance this seems counterintuitive; surely the experience of academics further into their career is crucial to provide high quality reviews? However, ECRs do have the knowledge necessary. We work day to day with the same techniques, using the same analysis as the papers we would then review. In addition, a larger body of reviewers reduces the individual workload and will improve the efficiency of the process, particularly as ECRs do not necessarily have the same time pressures. Increased participation ensures diversity of opinion and ensures particular individuals do not become too influential in what ideas are considered relevant or acceptable. There also exist personal benefits to becoming a reviewer, including an improved ability to critically assess research. Dr Anyogu for example found that reviewing the works of others helped her gain a better perspective of criticism received on her own work.

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Participants were encouraged to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of peer review and potential changes that could be made to address current weaknesses in the process. Photograph credited to Sense about Science.

One key message that I took away from the workshop is that peer review isn’t mechanical. Humans are at the heart of decisions. Dr Alam was particularly keen to stress that editors will listen to grievances and reconsider decisions if strong arguments are put forward. However, it also then follows that peer review is only as effective as those who participate in the process.  If the quality of reviewers is poor, then the quality of the review process will be poor. Hence it can be argued that we as members of the academic community have an obligation to maintain high standards, not least so that the public can be reassured the information we provide has been through a thorough quality control process. In a time when phrases such as ‘fake news’ are proliferating, it is crucial more than ever to maintain public trust in the scientific process.

I would like to thank all the panellists for giving up their time to contribute to this workshop; the organisations* who provided sponsorship and sent representatives; Informa for hosting the event; and Sense about Science for organising this unique opportunity to learn more about peer review.

*Cambridge University Press, Peer Review Evaluation, Hindawi, F1000Research, Medical Research Council, Portland Press, Sage Publishing, Publons, Elsevier, Publons Academy, Taylor and Francis Group, Wiley.