Peer Review: Does The System Need Overhauling For The Modern Age?

If you have come to Science Nutshell and enjoy reading the posted articles relating to a myriad of different subjects then, like me, you love science and care about the credible advancement of human knowledge.

Although scientists rely on empirical evidence of current and past research as well as personal objectivity to devise, carry out and publish experimental work, the requirement of ‘peer review’ is essential if science is to remain on a credible footing.

As Professor Penny Gowland, of Nottingham University, points out in her recent Physics World article (vol 27, no 5, May 2014, page 17) peer review is currently carried out using the ‘single blind’ method. The method works by the author of an experimental paper submitting their research to a relevant science journal; that work is then reviewed by the journal’s assigned science teams where it is either accepted, or rejected for publishing.

The problem with this method seems to be down to its asymmetry: on submission, the author is always kept ignorant of the reviewer’s identity although the reviewer is always aware of the submitting author(s) and research institution(s).

As Gowland points out, this can allow human prejudice/bias to seep into the review process—prejudice against the author(s), laboratory, research institution and even nationality has been identified. She also points out that due to the current system good science/ideas are possibly being overlooked from the smaller, less established, institutions, and potentially bad science is being given the ‘benefit of the doubt’ from the more eminent researchers and research establishments.

Could this be damaging for science?

Should the peer review system, itself, be flagged up for review?

Gowland suggests that a double blind method should be implemented, where both authors and reviewers remain secret to each other.

This system also has its problems, mainly due to ‘procedural and/or practical issues’; however, a review carried out in 2007 by the, ‘Publishing Research Consortium’, concluded that 56% of researchers preferred the double blind method as a system that would keep the scientific method free from prejudice and at the forefront of human endeavour.

It is clear that numerous global problems require solving in the coming decades, therefore the credibility of science needs to be kept razor sharp if essential public trust and acceptance is going to be upheld.

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Paul Hattle

As a strong advocate for science and learning, I am a passionate supporter of the 'Campaign for Science and Engineering' (CaSE) Fellow of the 'Royal Astronomical Society' (RAS) Associate Member of the 'Institute of Physics' (IOP) & 'The Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators' (ISTC)

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2 Responses

  1. A good point! It’s surprising that double-blind is not yet the norm, considering the amount of bias that can creep into the current process.

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