Why is peer review important in science

Peer review: why is it important?

Since scientific results and findings can have far-reaching consequences for people and society, they must be subjected to a quality control before publication: the peer review process.

The results presented in the manuscript are checked for validity by other scientists from the respective field and evaluated with regard to whether they are worthy of publication.

The peer-reviewed reports form the basis for deciding whether to publish a manuscript.

Sequence of the peer review process

After a manuscript has been submitted to a scientific journal, a kind of preliminary examination takes place as part of a desk review: The editors decide whether the manuscript should go through the peer review or whether it is immediately rejected. Subsequently, reviewers are selected who are able to review the manuscript due to their field of research. Ideally, manuscripts are assessed by several reviewers.

As part of the peer review process, it is primarily examined to what extent an article fits the thematic orientation of the journal, whether research questions have been formulated in an understandable manner and whether a suitable research approach has been chosen to answer the scientific questions posed. In addition, the methodology is checked to determine the extent to which the results are reproducible. The originality and novelty of the research findings are also assessed. If patients or animals have been worked with, ethical aspects are also examined. Finally, the "legibility" is also assessed to what extent the structure is logical and the conclusions are comprehensible. In addition, authors also receive useful tips on how to improve their article.

The reviewers usually create their assessment using a questionnaire and send it back to the publisher. On this basis, the final decision is made as to whether a manuscript is accepted or rejected, or is accepted on the condition that certain points are revised. In the event of serious deficiencies, manuscripts will be rejected, but can be resubmitted after a thorough revision.

A rejection does not necessarily have to mean that a manuscript is of poor quality. Articles are also rejected which either do not correspond to the content of the magazine or which do not meet the sometimes very high standards of novelty and originality. Some renowned journals have rejection rates of over 90%; across all scientific journals, around half of all articles submitted are rejected. Another reason for a rejection can be that an innovative approach is not recognized as such by the reviewers. There are also magazines that are less strict with regard to originality, but rather check to what extent the work has been scientifically accurate. Rejected articles are therefore usually resubmitted to another journal by the authors.

As a rule, no fee is paid for the preparation of the expert opinion; it is part of the self-organization of science. Some publishers “reward” their reviewers by granting them free access to the publisher's archive for a limited period of time.

Peer review variants

Peer review must be understood as a collective term for a wide variety of variants. A rough distinction between the most common methods is:

  • Single-blind procedure: the author does not find out who the reviewer is,
  • Double-blind procedure: The author and the reviewer do not mutually know who the other is.

There are also significant differences in the level of detail with which manuscripts are examined. For example, individual journals also use plagiarism software, organize a special statistical or method review, or check submitted images for manipulation.

Increasingly, journals are also being founded in which scientific software or research data sets are described. To this end, the peer review will be adapted accordingly.
In addition, peer review processes are also used by conference organizers to select contributions. Funding providers also use peer review processes to assess the eligibility of research proposals.

Criticism of the peer review

All of the methods mentioned have specific advantages and disadvantages. In the double-blind process, for example, it is criticized that reviewers can guess who the authors are based on the references cited. This may influence the neutrality of the report. The assessment of a scientific article also depends on the diligence of the reviewers and their scientific conviction.

Peer review procedures are increasingly coming under fire because, for example, serious methodological errors are not always discovered. Some reasons for the “failure” of the peer review process are the overloading of the peer reviewers due to the increased volume of publications and the unsuitable selection of reviewers by the editorial board.

In addition, it is often criticized that the peer review process is too opaque because the reviews are subjectively colored (for example, if reviewers cannot break away from their respective schools of thought), do not appreciate the value of a new idea or because reviewers are possible Do not (have to) disclose conflicts of interest.
Another central point of criticism of the peer review process is, among other things, that it can drag on over longer periods of time (usually weeks to months, in individual cases reports are also reported for years).

Occasionally, the suspicion is expressed that journals which claim to have installed a peer review process do not carry out any or only a very superficial examination (see also the FAQ on "Predatory Publishing).

It is assumed that, despite peer review, cases of fraud and the publication of inferior articles cannot be entirely prevented. Despite all the criticism, the peer review continues to be upheld because it ultimately proved its worth and in most cases - especially if authors can view the reviews and process comments - contribute to improving the publications. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with the authors who, according to the scientific self-image, have to ensure “scientific reproducibility” and “honesty”. The Peer Review concept is also constantly being adapted in order to counter the points of criticism.

Alternatives to current peer review processes

The “Open Peer Review” (or “Crowd Sourced Peer Review”) is currently being discussed as an alternative due to the points of criticism mentioned. For this purpose, articles are published directly with no or only rough preliminary examination and the corresponding evaluation and assessment are left to the scientific community. In addition to the advantages that there are opportunities for broad discussion and that comments or evaluations are usually published very quickly, problems are also recognizable: The key problem is to gain a sufficient number of experts who can carry out a competent assessment. In addition, the question arises as to how such platforms must be organized so that they can be handled and researched. So far it has been assumed that Open Peer Review is only seen as a supplement to the previous peer review process, but cannot replace it. There are also different variants of the process for the Open Peer Review. In this context, the extent to which reviews and comments may be created anonymously are discussed in particular. There is a risk of rivalries between scientists or personal sensitivities being presented there.

See also

Journal quality and perception: which aspects are relevant with regard to Open Access?

Disclaimer

Please note: Our service cannot offer binding legal advice, but provides information for initial orientation. ZB MED - Information Center for Life Sciences has carefully checked the information on the following pages, but accepts no liability for possible errors. Unless otherwise stated, statements on individual legal norms refer to German law (as of FAQ 11/2017).