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Peer Review

From: Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research.
by Nicholas H. Steneck

Peer review - evaluation by colleagues with similar knowledge and experience - is an essential component of research and the self-regulation of professions. The average person does not have the knowledge and experience needed to assess the quality and importance of research. Peers do. Therefore many important decisions about research depend on advice from peers, including which projects to fund (grant reviews), which research findings to publish (manuscript reviews), which scholars to hire and promote (personnel reviews), and which research is reliable (literature reviews and expert testimony).

The quality of the decisions made in each case depends heavily on the quality of peer review. Peer review can make or break professional careers and directly influence public policy. The fate of entire research programs, health initiatives, or environmental and safety regulations can rest on peer assessment of proposed or completed research projects. All major funding agencies today require peer review of grant applications, and a majority of journals require peer review of submitted manuscripts. Professional advancement is based on the ability to get articles published in peer-reviewed journals. Researchers who serve as peer reviewers should be mindful of the public as well as the professional consequences of their evaluations and exercise special care when making these evaluations.

A peer reviewer of an article or a grant application has several responsibilities:

Responsiveness
Reviewers should be able to complete reviews in a timely fashion. Preparing research reports and grant applications takes an enormous amount of time, and delay could hurt the author or applicant professionally. If a reviewer cannot meet deadlines, he or she should decline to perform the review.

Competence
Reviewers should accept an assignment only if he or she has adequate expertise to provide an authoritative assessment. If a reviewer is unqualified, he or she may end up accepting a submission that has deficiencies or reject one that is worthy.

Impartiality
Reviewers should be as objective as possible in considering the article or application and ignore possible personal or professional bias. If a reviewer has a potential conflict of interest that is personal, financial, or philosophical and which would interfere with objective review, he or she should either decline to be a reviewer or disclose any possible biases to the editor or granting agency.

Confidentiality
Material under review is privileged information and should not be shared with anyone outside the review process unless doing so is necessary and is approved by the editor or funding agency. If a reviewer is unsure about confidentiality questions, he or she should ask the appropriate party.

Exceptions to Confidentiality
If a reviewer becomes aware, based upon reading a grant application or a submitted manuscript, that his or her research may be unprofitable or a waste of resources, it is considered ethical to discontinue that line of work. The decision should be communicated to the individual requesting the review. Every effort should be made to ensure that a reviewer is not taking advantage of information garnered through the review process.

Constructive Criticism
Reviewers should acknowledge positive aspects of the material under review, assess negative aspects constructively, and indicate where improvements are needed. The reviewer should be an advocate for the author or candidate and help him or her resolve weaknesses in the work.

Responsibility to Science
It is the responsibility of members of the scientific profession to engage in peer review even though they usually do not get any financial compensation for the work, which can be difficult. The benefit to reviewers is that they become more aware of the work of their peers, which can lead to collaborations.

Although peer review has been ongoing for more than 200 years, it has been the subject of criticism, such as:

  • Reviewers may have biases that they are unable to disregard when they read a grant application or paper. Such biases can include disagreements with methods used in a paper or grant, dislike for an author's or applicant's institution, dislike of the author or applicant, and competition with the author or grant applicant.
  • Peer review may not allow controversial or innovative research to enter into the literature or to be used as the basis for a grant application, because reviewers often subscribe to the prevailing paradigm.
  • Peer reviewers may not be forthcoming in admitting financial conflicts of interest that they might have in reviewing a paper or grant application.
  • Reviewers may not admit their lack of expertise in reviewing a paper or grant application.
  • The peer-review process does not always find errors.
  • Gender bias may occur in reviewing. Some studies show that female authors were accepted more by female reviewers than by male reviewers.
  • Peer review does not prevent papers from getting published. Although an article might be rejected by one publication, a persistent author will get it published in another.

Until another method is developed, peer review remains the best way for experts to assess the quality of research to be funded or published. Those who perform it with integrity are fulfilling their obligations to the scientific community, according to Joe Cain, writing in Science and Engineering Ethics in 1999. Reviewers advocate for standards when they reject poor work and improve the field by giving constructive criticism and maintaining the knowledge base when they accept good work. Scientist reviewers also preserve professional authority when they decline to have the government review articles or use internal reviewers for external grant applications.