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Voice of Young Science – ‘Peer review: the nuts and bolts’ workshop review

Posted on 25th September 2015 by Heidi Gardner

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend a Voice of Young Science (VoYS) workshop at Glasgow Caledonian University, focussing on peer review. Take a look at my review of the workshop for some of the hints & tips I learned on the day.

VoYS is a branch of Sense About Science tailored specifically for early career researchers; it’s a thriving community of young scientists from all fields of science. They run workshops, support Sense About Science campaigns and have a strong online presence that supports and facilitates public debates about science.

The core of the event took the format of a panel, allowing questions and open discussion between panellists and the audience.

Panel focus: Examining the process of peer review in journal publishing: What does peer review do for science? How can early career researchers engage with the process? Exploring the criticisms of the peer review process; does it detect fraud and misconduct? Is maverick science rejected?

Panellists:
Malavika Legge, Publisher, Portland Press
Professor Martijn Steultjens, Chair of Peer Review College, School of Health and Life Sciences, Glasgow Caledonian
Professor Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Edinburgh and Editor-in-Chief of the neuroscience journal, CORTEX
Chaired by Victoria Murphy, Programme Manager, Sense About Science

Each of the panellists took a slot to explain their roles and experience with peer review, and what aspects of it they thought were good and bad.

Malavika Legge’s presentation came first; she covered origins of peer review and the way that the process works now, putting forward the view of a journal publisher. This was a viewpoint I had not taken into account previously and it was great to have such a balanced panel of experts educating us on different aspects of the review process. I had thought only about scientific integrity and the ways in which peer review could be improved in terms of the quality of published scientific papers. Malavika highlighted that the industry is open to these new ways of improving peer review, publishers are evolving and adapting to the needs of the scientific community; this was good to hear and she went on to explain in detail what these new methods could involve in the future.
Take home message: Publishing is not a simple or easy process. Publishers are constantly in need of reviewers without whom the whole process will collapse. Of course it could be improved, but ‘peer review is the basis of how science works’ and as such, publishers need the scientific community to take responsibility for peer review too.

Next up was Martijn Steultjens, giving details on his experience as a reviewer. He explained how he reads a paper, looking for the ‘spine’ of the piece. Put simply, the spine is made up of the research question(s), the data collected and the resulting conclusions. If the spine is linked well you’re onto a winner. Martijn describes the 3 choices a publisher will tell you are available to you when reviewing; accept, revise, reject. He then goes on to clarify that you really only have 2 choices, to revise or reject the paper. Accepting a paper at first submission is not an option – no scientific paper is perfect at this stage. Martijn explains modestly that everyone can learn from peer reviewing. You as a reviewer will learn from respectfully finding faults in the work of others, and when you submit a paper the reviews you get back will continue that learning process.
Take home message: As long as the data is sound the research can be published; this may take multiple revisions, but providing the data is watertight, everything else can be revised. Don’t ever be upset or disappointed when (notice I say not if!) your work is not accepted immediately. Acceptance on first submission is incredibly rare, he’s published well over 100 papers and not one has been accepted without revision – Malavika backs this up; she’s never seen it happen and she’s a publisher!

The panel session finished with Sergio Della Sala – a character that’s for sure! Sergio was blunt with his words, and perhaps rightly so. Earlier on in the day the audience had split into groups and to be honest, spent a lot of time criticising the peer review process. Sergio explained that the present system is a good way of working, sure it could be tweaked a little, but peer review itself gives us at least some sort of assurance of the validity of the research paper; it’s the people involved in the process that weaken it. We all want our papers to be reviewed and ultimately published, but how many of us have actually spent time reviewing on a regular basis? Probably not enough – if everyone reviewed regularly the system would move more smoothly and publishers wouldn’t need to search so desperately for reviewers.
Sergio also gave an example of what I think would be a good way to move peer reviewing in the future. Before the research has been completed the introduction and a very detailed methods section would be peer reviewed – revisions could be made at that point. Once the work was accepted, the researcher would make a contract with the journal agreeing that the introduction and methods section would remain unchanged in the final publication, and the journal would publish regardless of the result of the work. This would work to fight against publication bias – research with negative findings is much more difficult to get published at the moment – and would prevent scientists from making their work into a ‘story’.
Take home message: Peer review is good, but needs scientists to play their part too. We need to be more concerned with changing the process to work against publication bias and scientists changing the track of their research.

The event was a great opportunity not only to learn, but to network with students at various stages of their PhD and a few post-docs too. If you’re an early career researcher who hasn’t yet been in contact with VoYS or Sense About Science please do! Find out more here.

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Heidi Gardner

Hi, I'm Heidi. I graduated from the University of Aberdeen with a 1st class degree in Pharmacology and have now begun a PhD in Applied Health Sciences as part of Trial Forge. Primarily I'll be working on patient recruitment into clinical trials, hoping to understand existing methods and find better ways to improve trial recruitment and retention of participants. View more posts from Heidi

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One Comment on Voice of Young Science – ‘Peer review: the nuts and bolts’ workshop review

  • EeroTeppo

    Cool. But yeah, I’m very skeptical about ‘peer-reviewing (as we know it) is the basis of science’ and how much value peer-reviewing gives us compared to harm… Scientific publishing is a mess (still…). Ultimately you must have a critical look to any paper and not trust things like ‘passed peer-review’ which is clearly not good enough to keep that part of the literature free of serious problems. Without peer-review we could just dump all documentation to some database almost for free (it’s ridiculous how expensive it is to publish and libraries etc. need to buy the content back to research community) and let the science journalism do what other media do..

    8th October 2015 at 7:30 am
    Reply to EeroTeppo

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