Peer review and its fundamental role in science

Andrew Watson, PhD

This month I have been asked to comment on peer review and its necessity in ensuring professional and ethical standards are met, and that only “good science” is pursued and published.

Why is peer review so important? The simple answer is that no experimental outcome is subject to a single interpretation, and not all ideas are equally worth pursuing or the best pathways to finding answers to important questions.

Despite high values and strong personal commitments to the highest scientific rigors possible, biases in outcome interpretation occur, unjustified opinions regarding the importance of specific research directions arise, and a very rare number of cases of scientific misconduct occur.

Peer review has the task of ensuring only the best science is funded, conducted and published. If no scientific study is perfect and no outcome interpretation is completely free of bias, then really the goal of peer review becomes trying to improve the study and to ensure that all reasonable outcomes for a particular result are considered by the authors of the study.

Peer review forces researchers to defend their ideas, their work, and interpretations of their work. This type of discourse is essential to uncovering thoughts and ideas that are not always apparent in the first place.

It also keeps us grounded, humble, open-minded, and on our toes.

If peer review is absolutely necessary, then why does it drive everyone crazy? Here are a few thoughts:

- We can take criticism very personally because we cherish our ideas;

- It can hold up our progress significantly, and may even prevent us from pursuing our ideas;

- Now and again we may disagree with the reviewers’ point of view, or the reviewers can be wrong;

- It requires everyone to participate and that takes significant time away from our own pursuits;

- It does not necessarily eliminate scientific misconduct or ensure only good science is conducted and published;

- It creates an atmosphere of intense competition and uncertainty.

Even with all of these concerns, peer review remains the foundation research rests on. Sir Winston Churchill has been attributed as saying, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried”. I think the same sentiment can be applied to the peer review process. While imperfect, science cannot proceed without it and no one has come up with a better solution.

We can’t take peer review for granted or fail to participate in its application because if we do, it will almost certainly be replaced by something much less palatable. In some cases I think we can already see that happening. More and more research grant outcomes are not necessarily being decided by active researchers. Research funding priorities and strategic initiatives are increasingly directed by non-scientists and political interests.  

I hope these thoughts spur on your consideration of peer review and its place in overseeing good science. I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.

Talk to you next month,

Andrew J. Watson, PhD
Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies