Peer Review

13 Sep 2017

I'm guessing that not many of you had this in your diaries, but this week is apparently 'Peer Review Week'. While I'm not quite sure as to its point, it makes a good excuse to think a little about this strange system that many of us take for granted. This year was particularly relevant because Nature publishing group got into contact with me as they wanted a few interviews and discussions about peer review - both from an 'author' and a 'reviewer' perspective. It was very interesting thinking about this strange system, and going to their luxury AV studios to film it, and you can see the results here.

Despite frustrations, I do think that peer review is an incredibly important part of academia, and one which we rightly hold in high regard. However, there is also no doubt that it is a flawed system too, too much at the whims of the few reviewers who do not take the job seriously, and the disproportionate impact of perceived 'luxury' journals. I have one colleague who refuses to do any peer review at all - their argument that they shouldn't be expected to add significant value for free to a commercial product with their very specialised and hard earned expertise. Especially in the era of unprecedented profits for journals, the Elsevier boycott etc, I don't see this as an argument without merit. Then there are the questions about how to make the process fairer for authors too. Should we scrap anonymous reviewer? Personally, I see anonymity an important part of peer review, and would refuse to do an open peer review (which Nature are currently trialling for Nature Comms), but that anonymity should be used as a shield, rather than a sword. How about ensuring that authors are anonymous? While this won't work in all cases, I think this is something worth considering - even better if the authors and affiliations were anonymous from the Editors too...?

So, why do we do peer review? Well, the standard answer is that we want someone to do it for us when we publish a paper. There is certainly a degree of truth in this, but that is hardly a recipe to facilitate change in a system if we think it is broken. The point of view I take, is that I don't do it for the journals benefit, but rather for my own. There are so many interesting papers that come through my news feed each morning, that I hardly get a chance to read all the abstracts I would want to, let alone full papers in depth. Being a reviewer forces me to study someones work in depth, try to see it through the eyes of the authors, and get beyond the salesmanship and have a chance to influence the direction of travel, even if only in a small way. I then personally benefit in my own research by trying to understand others motivations and rationalizations for their work, and ensure that we keep these skills of being able to see other researchers work, from the big picture to the technical details, without the biases which can easily creep into ones own research directions.

How would you improve the peer review process?