Raising Scientific Experts
Competing interests threaten the scientific record, but courage and sound judgment can help
I would be a wealthy woman if I had a dollar for each time a student, a postdoctoral fellow, one of my colleagues—or even I—moaned and groaned about the capriciousness of scientific peer review. Some newbies are stymied in front of their computer keyboards for months as they write their first manuscript, trying to organize their meandering paths of research and messy, gray data into logical experimental designs and strong conclusions. Others, demoralized by pithy, anonymous critiques (surely from their toughest competitors), have to muster all their restraint to keep from writing scathing, retaliatory responses to their reviewers. I remember my own qualms on one of the first occasions that I evaluated grant proposals with a panel of reviewers. I felt certain that my lack of gamesmanship was the reason a few outstanding applications were not funded. While I reviewed my assignments using the criteria given, other reviewers adamantly championed—and got more attention for—the best of the proposals they evaluated. No one had prepped me for how the review committee would operate.
Peer review is one of the central activities of science, but students and trainees are often ill prepared to assume their duties as authors and reviewers. Clearly, there is more to peer review and publication than factual knowledge and technical skills. Science is a culture. To succeed, we need to nimbly navigate within our professional culture. There is much that training programs can do to instill professionalism in the next generation of scientists, and I will outline some of the approaches that my colleagues and I used to develop an ethics and professionalism curriculum at Wake Forest University School of Medicine (WFUSM). But first, if we are to aspire to excellence in scientific publication—and train young scientists to do the same—it is important to understand the purpose of scientific publishing and the competing interests that may compromise it.