Peer-review quality must be raised, says report

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A number of options are available to raise the quality of peer review, according to a new report from the European Science Foundation (ESF). The report ‘Peer review: its present and future states’ draws on ideas from an international conference in Prague in October 2006.

A central theme of the report is that the current peer-review system might not adequately assess the most pioneering research proposals, as they may be viewed as too risky. John O’Reilly, former chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), now vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, said that traditional peer review might be too risk averse. He suggested the need to encourage pioneering research that is high risk in the proposal, but high impact if successful.

An example of a new approach to overcome the perceived risk-averse funding culture was given at the Prague conference by He Minghong from the National Natural Science Foundation China. His organisation encourages reviewers and programme managers to spot risky project proposals and these are then funded under stricter conditions. Their duration is shorter, their budget smaller and they are more closely monitored.

Ways to make review cycles more effective are also discussed in the report. One of the examples is the implementation of remote evaluation, encompassing virtual review panels in teleconferences and online tools to remotely access applications. Knowledge management software tools can also be used to identify reviewers and assign applications to them. Better European cooperation in the peer-review process is also required, according to the report.  

All contributors to the conference report are said to have agreed that peer review is an essential part of research and that no other credible mechanism exists to replace it. They also agreed that a continuous monitoring and exchange of information, exemplified by this conference, will be an effective way to work together to develop and improve it.