Industry changes challenge traditional peer review

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Peer review is used for evaluating and assuring the quality of research before and after it is funded or published. Reports indicate that researchers strongly support peer review as the cornerstone to good scholarship.

However, the process has come under some recent criticism. Some researchers feel that reviewers are not always objective, that the judgements are often inconsistent and lend towards conservatism and stifle innovation. It is clearly important that the selection of reviewers should be rigorous, and that the reviewers themselves should be subject to review. Reports have indicated the importance of training and the provision of written guidelines for reviewers, although further work has shown that short training courses have little impact.

Many researchers feel that the level of transparency has a large role to play in ensuring fairness in the system. A large majority of researchers support the double-blind system, where the identities of the authors and the reviewers are kept from each other, as they believe this reduces bias in the system.

However, there is little evidence that double-bind peer review actually decreases the risk of unfairness. In fact, in an attempt to reduce bias, subjectivity and conservatism, many journals are actually increasing the transparency of their peer review process and are moving towards an open system. Publishers hope that by revealing the identities’ of the reviewers and authors to each other and, in some cases, publishing the reviewers’ comments and editors’ reports, that this will not only encourage constructive referee and author comments but will also demystify editorial decisions. It is also hoped that it will help younger researchers understand what is expected of them regarding their own publications and how to deal with criticism.

In addition to these changes, technological developments and the growth of new forms of communications between researchers are presenting new challenges and opportunities for the development of peer review. Some journals are using web technologies to allow readers to post comments, and rate individual articles, augmenting and in some cases, replacing the traditional peer review process. In addition, there are now designated sites, such as Faculty 1000, where experts (‘faculty’) in the field evaluate and comment on the most interesting and relevant peer-reviewed papers they read each month.

Researchers are also beginning to communicate their results using a wide range of multimedia formates and social media sites (such as blogs, wikis, and YouTube) at various stags of the research process. This raises questions about quality control, the role of traditional peer review and if an alternative method should be established. In addition, research funders are particularly eager to see raw data published alongside or in addition to journal articles or monographs.

Reports indicate that researchers have a few concerns regarding trust and are keen in principle to see data subjected to peer review. However, they recognise the difficultly in achieving this without adding to the burdens already placed on the peer-review system and increasing the decision making process. The growing number of blogs, reports and events testifies to the concerns elicited by the peer-review process. Both its principles and the practical implication of the process have given rise to reservations among researchers. It is therefore of critical importance to encourage the continual evaluation of the current peer-review procedures.

Branwen Hide is liaison and partnerships officer at the Research Information Network (RIN)