Earlier this year I was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland – something I’d never heard of and didn’t know anything about. My doctors, obviously (and thankfully!) know a lot about it, of course, but they speak a whole different language that’s largely incomprehensible to non-scientists like me.
So, like most people in this sort of situation, I headed straight to Google. As you can imagine, there’s an awful lot of information out there – even for a rare cancer like this (just one in 200,000 people in the US diagnosed annually). And some of it was really really scary – think blogs and chatrooms filled with horror stories about people who have undergone major, often disfiguring, surgery; or who haven’t been able to eat real food for years. But luckily there is also some very good information around. And by good, what I really mean is peer-reviewed.
For me as a patient, knowing that the research I was reading had been peer reviewed (or was based on peer-reviewed articles) gave me much more confidence in it. To quote Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts, a new booklet from Sense About Science, the British-based charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion:
Just as a washing machine has a quality kite mark, peer review is a kind of quality mark for science. It tells you that the research has been conducted and presented to a standard that other scientists accept.
So for non-scientists like me, it provides a level of reassurance that would not otherwise be there.
The peer review process, however, is increasingly being challenged by some within the scholarly community. The Sense About Science booklet goes on to say:
At the same time [peer review] is not saying that the research is perfect (nor that a washing machine will never break down).
It’s certainly not without its flaws; to quote Nigel Hawkes, author of “Straight Statistics,” in the same booklet:
It’s a good thing most scientists are honest, because peer review offers the greatest possible temptation to steal ideas, to show favor to former students, to boost favored theories, or to do down rivals.
Others simply ask, why bother with the traditional process of single or double-blind peer review when you can just make your research available immediately online for people to comment on? In some subjects, such as physics (where research is typically posted on ArXiv before being submitted for publication), that’s already the norm – mainly because physicists often work in large, diverse, and global teams where it makes sense to share results ahead of publication.
However, rather than dying out, traditional peer review still seems to be thriving in most disciplines. Sense About Science also carried out a major survey on peer review a couple of years ago, which both demonstrates the commitment of most in the scholarly community and confirms Hawkes’ view of most scientists as honest. The survey found that 90% of respondents review articles because they like playing their part as a member of the academic community; 85% enjoy seeing papers and being able to improve them; and 91% believe their own last paper was improved through the peer review process.
It helps, of course, that we’ve seen a number of improvements to the process in recent years, including initiatives such as CrossMark, which helps identify and track changes and retractions, and better anti-plagiarism tools, such as CrossCheck. While it may still not be a perfect system from a scholarly perspective, given that science is, by its nature, an iterative process, peer review provides an initial level of validation for original research that enables other scholars to challenge, critique, and improve on it.
In today’s “just Google it” world, where more people have more access to more information than ever before, it must make sense to ensure that everyone understands the difference between what they read in a peer-reviewed article and, say, a blog; or between a site like cancer.org (the American Cancer Society’s website), which includes full references for the mainly peer-reviewed information provided, and what is essentially a sales and marketing site for an individual physician or practice. Many publishers (including, in the interest of full disclosure, Wiley) already provide support for Sense About Science’s efforts to promote peer review, as well as for CrossMark, CrossCheck, and other cross-publishing initiatives that improve the quality of published research. But could we do more to ensure that peer review is understood and valued outside of our community as well as within it? For example, how about educating high school students – the next generation of scientists and scholars – about the importance of peer review? Encouraging high school science teachers to make their students aware of Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts (freely available on the Sense About Science website) would be a great place to start.