When peer review meets the press

How do scientific ideas progress from being a project at my lab bench to being the headline story on your nightly news? The process, while all-too-familiar to research scientists, can be a bit of a black box to everyone else. In the last few weeks, this process has reached the front-page news more than once, so let’s talk about the scientific process (and some of its’ flaws)!

The first thing to realize? Science takes a very, very long time. The grant review process, the actual science, the publication process: all are notoriously slow, albeit crucial, steps in the world of science.

In order to fund, perform, and publish scientific research, scientists rely on one very important group: our peers. First, a panel of other scientists reviews our grant proposals. Once the grant is funded, collaborations are critical for the success of a research project. Finally, when the research is completed and submitted for publication, our colleagues review the manuscript for content and clarity. Involving our peers in every step of the process, in theory, ensures the funding of only the best grants and the publication of only the best scientific papers.

Peer-Review-Nick-Kim-cartoon3-resize (1)

Peer review can be a long, hard road for any scientist                                               (Cartoon credit: Nick D Kim, strange-matter.net)

As the title of my post suggests, the peer review process has come under scrutiny as of late. Let’s do a quick rundown of the recent headlines about the scientific process!

1) The battle over open access

If I were to give you a list of 10 influential scientific articles from the last 20 years and ask you to find full versions of them, you would have a very hard time. In fact, when you reach the website of the appropriate journal, you’d probably be asked to pay the reasonable fee of only 50-100 dollars to view the article.

Wait… $100 to read ONE article?!

The reason? Most research journals charge steep subscription fees to access their articles (current or archived). However, as a large number of these articles are from publicly funded research labs, many believe that this research should be free for anyone to read.

The good news? We have seen a rise in the number of journals with “open access” policies over the last few years. As of 2011, 12% of articles were available open access, with this number rising all the time. The availability of academic research to the public is increasing, and this is definitely a good thing!

Read more: Nature News tackles the topic of Open Access 

2) Is the peer review process in grant selection unsatisfactory?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a government agency that provides a large amount of funding to science and engineering research. NSF grants are selected, you guessed it, through a peer review process. After an intensive review of grants that received funding from the NSF over the last few years, some lawmakers believe that the selected grants are not always “groundbreaking” research.

To “fix” this apparent problem, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) drafted a bill last month to implement Congress-selected funding criteria on the grant selection process. Many scientists believe that this funding criteria, which requires grants to “answer questions or solve problems that are of utmost importance to society at large”, undermines the peer review process and would negatively impact the advancement of basic research.  Basic research, as opposed to being aimed at curing a particular disease or illness, focuses on understanding the fundamental principles of the world. While this work may not directly “advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare”, it is important an building block for our understanding of the human world. The bill, which has not been formally introduced to Congress, has sparked a large amount of debate within the scientific and political realm. How should we decide who gets funded, when the amount of funding keeps dwindling?

Read more: Science Insider on the NSF Grant Bill

3) Are timeliness and thoroughness in peer review mutually exclusive?

When something BIG happens in science, the authors want to get it out fast with as big of a splash as possible. But where do we find the balance between rushing to publish big results and allowing the peer review process to be effective?

One of those BIG things in science happened this month: Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a US researcher, reported that he had cloned human stem cells from skin cells. The research was published in the journal Cell, a prestigious journal in the scientific community. In the last few days, concerns from anonymous readers began pouring in on potential errors  in the publication. Figures were labeled incorrectly, and an image was duplicated and reused in a different section of the paper. These are the type of errors that are usually caught during the tedious peer review process. So why weren’t they corrected before the publication of such a big story?

To put it simply, this paper went through review at an incomprehensibly fast rate. To give you a framework, a case study of 2,000 manuscripts submitted to a journal in 2010 reported that the average submission took 6.8 weeks from submission to editorial decision. Mitalipov’s submission was reviewed and accepted in only 3 days. Additionally, the paper was published just 12 days after acceptance.

Cell went on to defend the speediness of their review process, stating: “It is a misrepresentation to equate slow peer review with thoroughness or rigor or to use timely peer review as a justification for sloppiness in manuscript preparation”. Thankfully, it appears that the errors in the manuscript do not impact the findings of the research. However, the negative publicity from these errors certainly detracts from the impressive and innovative science performed by Mitalipov and colleagues.

Read more: Nature News: “Human stem cells created by cloning

Read more: Nature News on Errors in Mitalipov Stem Cell Paper

Read more: 2010 Case Study on average length of peer review

Conclusions

In summary, these three stories have brought the scientific process and peer review into the spotlight. Peer review has a lot of benefits, improving the caliber of the science we deliver to the public and lowering the rate of publication of unethical scientific practices. However, the question now remains: how do we improve the peer review process to keep up with the rapid speed of scientific discovery while still yielding the high quality publications we expect?

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Some suggested reading for more information:

Nature tackles the Peer Review Debate

Nature: How are funded grants chosen?

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