Peer review has been a central pillar of the scientific endeavor since the first scientific journals appeared more than 300 years ago. Despite many criticisms about the integrity of peer review, it continues to play an important role in the knowledge lifecycle, ensuring that the process produces robust, credible and trustworthy science.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic placed unprecedented pressure on science and its practice, transforming it in various ways and making it increasingly challenging for researchers and the public to judge the credibility and trustworthiness of research.
Peer Review Week provides a moment each year for the scientific community to reflect on the role and function of peer review. The theme for 2022 — “Research Integrity: Creating and supporting trust in research” — certainly speaks to the pressures being felt across the broader research ecosystem.
At Elsevier, we want to help researchers understand and navigate this changing landscape. That’s why we launched the global Confidence in Research collaboration this year. Together with our partners, we’re assessing the drivers of confidence in research and will co-create potential solutions that can support the research community in a way that ultimately improves research integrity and confidence in science.
For Peer Review Week this year, we heard from researchers and research leaders who put forward their views on the peer review process and the role they see it playing in the research ecosystem.
Disseminating trusted science to combat the pandemic
During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Lancet’s timely publication of peer-reviewed research led to rapid progress in combating the virus. In fact, BioNTech Co-Founder and CEO Uğur Şahin credited an early article in The Lancet with helping him realize the severity of the outbreak, sparking him to start development of what would become the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.
Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, credited the journal’s commitment to publishing research rapidly during the pandemic as a key factor in supplanting The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) from the top spot in Journal Citation Reports' General and Internal Medicine Impact Factor category — making The Lancet the world’s leading medical journal for the first time since the metric was introduced in 1975:
During the pandemic, we recognized the urgent importance of publishing high-quality peer-reviewed papers quickly. We had the editorial resources to fast-track research and publish within days or weeks rather than months. Together with our own preprint server, this efficiency meant we could be extremely responsive to the way the pandemic and our response to the pandemic was evolving .
He said the JCR Impact Factor is one of the most referenced and respected reflections of the effect and absorption of a journal’s research:
We know that some country’s scientific institutions, even governments, follow the undulations of the Impact Factor with astonishing care and attention.
Minimizing bias and increasing diversity through peer review
For Dr Max Voegler, VP of Strategic Networks – DACH at Elsevier, the pandemic illuminated a clear need to cultivate a more inclusive research landscape. In his view, evolving the peer review process will be central to those efforts. In his Elsevier Connect article on cultivating a more inclusive research landscape, he reasoned that personal and social identity play a role in peer review, and it’s therefore important that the scholarly community continues to foster a more diverse, equitable and inclusive peer review practice that minimizes bias:
Underrepresentation is a problem. … It is particularly challenging to tackle unconscious bias in individual review reports and to improve trust in peer review. Some organizations are already working on diversifying review panels and advisory groups, setting targets to ensure researchers are fairly evaluated and given fair chance to participate in the process. Still, to increase transparency, more can be done by publishers and funders alike to make data available on the makeup of panels and selection committees.
The enduring value of feedback
For Dr Michael Bossetta of Lund University, an early-career researcher who examines the intersection of social media and politics, peer review remains an important part of the knowledge lifecycle, and it’s actually something that he looks forward to. In a recent article for Elsevier Connect, he wrote:
I do look forward to [peer review] because it's exciting to get long form feedback on your ideally local feedback. But of course, it depends on the tier of journal. … When you're going for a high-level journal, you know that the reviews are going to be generally pretty on point even if you disagree with them.
However, he also emphasized that the process can be anxiety-inducing because it represents the most serious kind of feedback:
When that email comes in, it’s very exciting, but you can go from excitement, to being kind of frustrated, to agreeing with it. It can take a little while to separate your emotions from what’s best for the research.
Peer review’s enduring role in the knowledge lifecycle reflects the value of the checks and balances it provides. However, science and its practice are undergoing rapid change, and for peer review to continue playing a central role in preserving and enhancing the scientific record, the scholarly community must work together to ensure the process evolves in alignment with the wider research ecosystem.