Sense and nonsense in peer review

Making sense of peer review

Nuts and bolts
Is peer review a little rusty? Photo by Claudio Matsuoka

Sense about Science, a UK charitable trust, recently published a document that rounds up the mysterious world of science peer review for insiders and outsiders alike. It is called “Peer review – the nuts and bolts” and you can download it from this page. It follows on from the detailed 2009 international survey that Sense About Science carried out on peer review. The survey came up with facts like:

Playing an active role in the community is top of reasons to review: 90% of reviewers say they review because they believe they are playing an active role in the community.

61% of reviewers have rejected an invitation to review an article in the last year, citing lack of expertise as the main reason – this suggests that journals could better identify suitable reviewers.

It is also well timed after the UK House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee report on peer review in 2011 and the current rethinking of the value, quality and methods of peer review by scientists and editors, especially as technology enables communication in all sorts of new ways and journals rework business models to make access to research more open. The booklet makes many details of peer review more transparent especially for those new to or unfamiliar with science and puts faces to many of the contributions from the worlds of publishing, research, research funding and journalism, like this from Jamie McClelland, who was involved in the Voice of Young Science workshops on which the report is based:

“One of the reasons I like to review papers is that it makes me feel like an important part of the academic community, and that my opinion about what is (or isn’t) good science actually matters.”

The main impressions after reading the report is how diverse practices and opinions are in peer review, how peer review is really a simple process of giving one’s expert opinion and need not be so obscure, and how enthusiastic everyone is about participating in peer review. It is an uplifting read and a good starting point for training and discussion.

If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. 

If you have been on the giving or receiving end of peer review, no doubt you’ve experienced your own frustrations and emotions. Kate Cross is a research fellow at St Andrew’s University in Scotland. Not only is Kate an expert on evolutionary sex differences in human social behaviour, she is also a stand-up comedian and a talented science communicator. In this routine at the Bright Club in Edinburgh, Kate explains why peer review so often evokes that strange feeling of déjà vu.

You can watch Kate’s full Bright Club set here. Hopefully we’ll find out what Kate, in both her scientific and comedic capacities, makes of the results of the APEER survey next year.