Kerez_Enlightened_Final_May2015_web

In praise of peer review: the obvious and not-so-obvious benefits

By Adam Kerezsy   

Ebb and Rob Rolls recently touched on peer review, Ebb in the context of his backlog of papers, Rollsy more generally.

Despite the fact that it can be a pain, the peer review process has several benefits over and above the obvious goal of keeping our science to a professional standard.

First, peer review makes us better readers and writers – not just better science readers and writers, but better overall. Despite the constraints imposed by science, writing remains a creative process, and we all do it differently. By exposing our work to the eyes and minds of others we harvest opinions and ideas that haven’t occurred to us, and we either edit our work accordingly or defend our original position, but any editing is usually good editing: we end up re-assessing the validity of our work. Multiple authorship often creates a similar result, but not always: independent reviewers frequently expose issues with manuscripts that teams of authors submit in the belief that the research and writing is as tight as a duck’s nether regions. If we assume that the majority of reviews will be by colleagues with at least the same amount of skin in the game as us, we have a responsibility to respect their advice, just as they have a right to express it. By becoming involved in the peer review process – submitting, getting knocked back, re-submitting, reading and reviewing the work of others – we rapidly develop our own editing skills. We learn from past mistakes, our grammar and punctuation improves and we become more concise. We learn to discard waffle and concentrate on the meaningful stuff. And when we read other material – everything from newspapers to other published work – our collective antennae are more finely attuned. Crap papers will still slip through and good papers will still get shafted – the system isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than the alternative. Undergrads and Honours students are frequently told to read as much as possible. It doesn’t always make sense at the time, but it certainly comes true later. If in doubt, dig out an old assignment or literature review and have a look – it may not be pleasant.

Second, the peer-review process allows people to access the profession. In our case, despite the fact that there are plenty of freshwater people spread about, both globally and in Australia, it’s not a stretch to call it a far-flung group. By submitting work to journals, people are effectively auditioning for their spot on the lunch seats, and by enduring the peer-review process they’re letting the other kids make the decision. Sometimes it might take a while, but persistence is likely to pay off. The great advantage is that through the process, names and areas of interest become known to others, and this can happen irrespective of the success or failure of submissions. It’s not unusual to meet people at conferences or meetings, only to realise that they reviewed your paper, or that you reviewed theirs. Except in extreme circumstances, we can assume these encounters are amicable, but either way, the net result is the same: people know who you are and what you’re doing. There are certainly people out in the big wide world who do great work and don’t publish it, but it doesn’t really make much sense, because it’s not really contributing to the bigger picture. Without a doubt the best way to become involved in research is to conduct it, and then to publish it (or at the very least, to quote a former and nearly-forgotten NSW premier, give it a red-hot go). The third and most important aspect of the peer-review process is its role in preserving the culture, tradition and processes of our profession. People will dream up new techniques, they’ll invent more sophisticated gadgetry, and they’ll come up with new models and theories, but the purpose of peer-review is to sort the wheat from the chaff: if it doesn’t pass muster – and no matter how much the researcher thinks it should – the technique/model/gadget probably needs a bit more work. Unlike other occupations, the scientific process has not and will not be fundamentally altered by the influence of the internet (like journalism) or fashion (like music and the arts). It is slow and ponderous – a criticism levelled by some – but it has to be, because that’s the way it has evolved. There are several traditions that underpin science. They include hypothesis testing, sound experimental design and a relatively formulaic style of writing and reportage. Peer-review is another such tradition, and a vital one for a profession that is mediated and nurtured by formal introspection.

 

Bibliography

Ebb (2014). The backlog. The Moray’s Lair (perspective; December 24)

Rolls, R. (2015). Science as a team contact sport. The Moray’s Lair. (perspective; March 9)