A Troubled Tradition
It’s time to rebuild trust among authors, editors and peer reviewers
By the mid 1700s, editors at the world’s first scientific journal had a problem on their hands. Since its inaugural issue in 1665, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London had published many outstanding scientific papers, including such classics as Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms. But some authors had begun to submit works of fiction and rambling speculative essays. To maintain standards of quality, the editors of Philosophical Transactions launched a system of peer review to evaluate manuscripts before publication. Two centuries went by, however, before the system really caught on. In the mid 20th century, increased specialization, government support for research, and competition for journal space compelled editors to seek assistance from experts. Today, peer review is an essential part of scientific publication and is also used to evaluate manuscripts, grants and academic careers.
In publication, peer review serves two distinct functions: It ensures that work is published only if it meets appropriate standards of scholarship and methodology, and it helps authors improve their manuscripts. The process, familiar to many American Scientist readers, begins when authors submit a manuscript to a journal, often with a list of suggested reviewers and a list of scientists who should not see the work. The journal editor sends papers of interest to members of the editorial board or outside experts who review the work for free. These referees assess the manuscript for originality, importance, validity, and clarity. They also advise the editor about the manuscript’s overall merit and provide written comments—usually anonymously—for the authors. Finally, the editor decides to publish, reject or request revisions to the manuscript.
Although it is hard to imagine how science could progress without independent evaluation of research, peer review is an imperfect system, fraught with questions of bias, efficacy and ethics. At each step of the process, there are opportunities and temptations for reviewers to go astray, and these can take many forms, from simple negligence to intentional abuse for personal gain. If scientific publications are to remain a reliable record of knowledge and progress, editors and reviewers must actively cultivate high ethical standards.
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