Jim was appointed FEMS Publications Manager in 2011 following his previous role as Editor-in-Chief of FEMS Microbiology Ecology. In this month’s series, Jim shares his thoughts on the role of peer review in science publishing and why it is still relevant today.
We live in interesting times, with political decisions influenced by fake news, fact-checking becoming routine and some politicians happy to ignore the enormous benefits provided by science and happy to deny scientific evidence when it suits their ends. It is therefore essential that scientists maintain rigor, objectivity and integrity when assessing their own findings and the quality of research performed by others. The peer review process is fundamental to such assessment. Scientific results are communicated in many ways but publication in scientific journals is where quality control is imposed and where interpretation of data is challenged.
Peer review systems vary between disciplines but in the biological and microbiological sciences, the tradition is for anonymous, sometimes blind review of research articles by 2 – 3 expert reviewers, leading to a decision by a handling editor on acceptance, rejection or revision. Revision allows authors to respond to reviewers’ criticisms, with further reviews if necessary. The consequent increase in workload may be frustrating for authors but in my experience as author, reviewer and editor, I have not seen a paper that has not been improved by the peer review process.
Good reviews require significant time and effort but are essential, as they ensure expert assessment of the importance of the aims, the quality of the data and experimental design, objectivity in interpretation of results and relevance of the findings within the context of current knowledge. No system is perfect, but the involvement of several reviewers increases the range of expertise available, reduces the risk of personal bias and reduces the stochastic nature of the process. Anonymous reviewing provides greater freedom of expression, particularly when junior researchers are reviewing work of international experts, although it does somewhat reduce accountability.
Indeed, there has never been a time when we need to be more careful about integrity and maintenance of quality.
Peer review has developed significantly since its inception and several variations on the traditional model are now in operation. In some cases, reviewers enter into a dialogue with authors, with the reviewers’ identities revealed if the paper is accepted, or the takes place openly online. These developments have been introduced, in part, to reduce the limitations of existing systems. Many are experimental, and some will no doubt be abandoned, but none challenge the basic requirement for peer review.
Indeed, there has never been a time when we need to be more careful about integrity and maintenance of quality. The pressure to publish is greater than ever, fraud and plagiarism have never been easier and the growth of rogue journals with questionable or no peer review threatens perceptions of quality. These developments coincide with increases in research funding, generating increasing numbers of submitted papers and consequent increased burden on expert reviewers, influencing the capacity for high quality reviews. These challenges must be addressed but the core requirements and demands of peer review must be met to maintain confidence in scientific research.
And what does peer review mean to you? Become a guest writer on our Peer review – reviewed series and share your peer review views with the wider microbiology community. Please email us if you are interested.