What is the role of peer review in science?

Editorial Board Members from Communications Biology share their perspectives on the role of peer review in modern science
Published in Microbiology

In honor of Peer Review Week and the theme “Quality in Peer Review”, the editors at Communications Biology are sharing their thoughts about peer review in a series of posts on the Nature Research community sites. Today’s post looks at the role that peer review plays in the advancement and dissemination of scientific research. 

I asked 5 of our Editorial Board Members, who each have experience as authors, reviewers, and editors, for their perspectives on peer review. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. You’ll see that they all agree on the importance of peer review, but each offers a perspective unique to their own experiences.

Editorial Board Members who contributed to this post:

How does peer review contribute to science?

Yuan Qin: Peer review contributes to science in a big way by acting as a quality-control system and applying checks and balances for ideas and scientific discoveries before they are widely accepted by the scientific community. That is why this time-honored tradition continues till today and it is followed by all the reputable journals and funding agencies.

Si Ming Man: Peer review has its merits and flaws. Traditional peer review (pre-publication peer review) is considered the “gatekeeper” of science. However, our work is subject to evaluation by our peers even after it’s published via post-publication peer review. On the whole, peer review is still the very essence of science, which is important for the advancement of knowledge.

Michel Thiebaut de Schotten: Peer review is the only way to ensure mistakes and overstatement don’t misguide progress in science. However, reviewing is an influential power, and because reviewers are anonymous, the process is sometimes unfair. For instance, anonymous reviewers can be negatively biased when reviewing the paper from a colleague, a competitor or use their reviewing position to promote software, a method or theory. As an author, reviewer and editor, I have seen this happening many times.

Krishnananda Chattopadhyay: To me, peer review is probably the most important component of how modern science is done. Whatever little I have achieved so far in my research career, it has been possible only because of the enormous contributions of these unknown people. In my opinion, scientists are by definition emotional people—and I am no exception. We are extremely passionate about our ideas, our hypotheses and how we design our experiments. It is that one important sentence from an anonymous peer reviewer that frequently makes me realize a crucial flaw in that earth-shattering idea I had put forward; or alternatively, the critical extra experiments, which validate nicely what I hypothesized.  

Loredana Quadro: Peer review is the essence of science. Without a doubt, it is time consuming, but nevertheless needed to ensure that scientific discoveries significantly enhance our knowledge. Peer review should also contribute to promote a culture of research integrity. In order to be constructive, this process requires a high level of rigor, objectiveness, and transparency from both the authors and reviewers. As an author, I welcome the unbiased criticisms of my peers. As a reviewer, I feel that it is a privilege to have the opportunity to provide feedback on others’ findings. I do so with honesty and a great sense of respect for the hard work of my peers, hoping that my suggestions would be always perceived positively.

Traditional Peer Review is considered the “gatekeeper” of science (Si Ming Man)

How does the role of the peer reviewer differ from that of the editor?

Loredana Quadro: My response to the first question above is my idealistic view of peer review, which does not always correspond to reality. In this context, I feel that the role of an editor is critical, as he/she often act as a “judge”. By evaluating the argument between authors and reviewers, editors should find a critical balance that, while meeting the above-mentioned criteria of rigor, transparency and integrity, also establishes the boundaries within which to contain the scientific discussion. With their decisions, editors can truly shape not only the focus of a journal, but also the direction taken by a given area of science. As an editor, I do feel highly responsible for that!

Yuan Qin: Editors evaluate a manuscript's fitness to the journal scope and make the decision whether to send it for peer review or reject. After peer review, the editor is the ultimate decision maker on which manuscripts will be published based on the comments from the reviewers. Reviewers provide comments on the validity of the science, find scientific errors in the evaluation or design of experiments, determine the originality of the work, and can recommend publication or rejection of the manuscript.

Michel Thiebaut de Schotten: The editor is also a reviewer of the manuscript, but with higher responsibilities. The editor must read and assess the quality of the submitted manuscript before sending it to review. Papers are often beyond their technical, and sometimes theoretical, expertise; reviewers evaluate a paper in more depth. The editor must read the reviews and verify whether they are fair. Unlike reviewers, the editor’s work is not anonymous, and conflicts of interests are an inherent risk. For instance, editors can be positively biased when an article is submitted by authors from their own country. Gender biases also exist. For a reference, I recommend reading this article (bioRxiv).

Si Ming Man: Reviewers are key in providing an unbiased judgement on the novelty, conceptual advance and technical soundness of the study. Editors have a unique perspective in that they oversee multiple manuscripts at a time, and can therefore apply a fair and consistent editorial standard across all of the submitted manuscripts. Editors make independent decisions on manuscripts based on the reviewers’ comments against the backdrop of editorial criteria and policy and any information not available to peer reviewers. This means that editors will, at times, overrule the recommendations provided by the reviewers.

Krishnananda Chattopadhyay: Editors, while they may have limited domain expertise, should have an understanding of what the manuscript should eventually look like. This is important because—and it has happened many times in my limited scientific career, when two reviewers have differed on a crucial point—the editor can save the day. I personally think that when an editor and qualified peer reviewers collaborate efficiently, it results in a significantly improved manuscript.

With the rise of preprint servers such as bioRxiv, has the importance of traditional peer review in a journal changed?

Michel Thiebaut de Schotten: Preprint servers are an excellent initiative, which aims to shift the publishing paradigm. In a competitive research environment, preprints are also a way to claim priority for discoveries. In the ideal world, articles would be reviewed in preprint servers. Unfortunately, preprints are very rarely reviewed. Consequently, preprint servers are a way to give free access to a preliminary unreviewed and potentially biased version of the manuscript, but ultimately do not help faster and better diffusion of good science.

Krishnananda Chattopadhyay: There is no doubt that preprint servers facilitate information sharing in a faster way and it is a welcome development. It may be argued that the success of a manuscript depends not on the judgement of “three wise men”, but on what it accomplishes in the long run. This argument works really well for established senior scientists, who may or may not opt for publishing in a traditional journal. Younger faculty members still need their ‘short term’ success stories, and peer review in a traditional journal setting is an integral part of this. 

Yuan Qin: The importance of traditional peer review has not changed, though it has been challenged with the rise of preprint servers. The peer review process provides not only excellent expert suggestions, but is also a strong incentive for the authors to improve the quality of their paper. More importantly, peer review plays a key role in the scientific process and works as a quality control to prevent scientific misconduct.

Si Ming Man: I believe bioRxiv and traditional publications can co-exist. bioRxiv has a specialised and emerging role in the published literature. It provides authors an avenue to disseminate their work very quickly and to potentially receive feedback. However, authors often do not receive frank and honest comments from these publication platforms compared to that of anonymous single-blinded peer review in a traditional publication system. The rise of bioRxiv in popularity probably means that traditional peer review in a journal will need to be expedited in some way to keep up with the demand of more rapid dissemination in science.

The peer review process provides not only excellent expert suggestions, but is also a strong incentive for the authors to improve the quality of their paper (Yuan Qin)

How has your view of peer review changed over time, as an author, reviewer, and editor? 

Krishnananda Chattopadhyay: The fundamentals of the peer review process have not changed much, at least in my opinion. When I review a paper today, I try to be just as serious as I was 10 years ago. Of course, the number of submissions have increased and the concept of megajournals is not new anymore. These developments have resulted in several peripheral changes, and most of these are positive. Many journals are now giving the option of double-blind reviewing, and I am happy that one of these journals is Communication Biology. The contributions of peer-reviewers are better appreciated as organizations like Publons are becoming more and more important. The ‘Reviewer of the Month’ initiative of the Communications Journals—and I am sure that they are not alone—is also a  great idea. 

Si Ming Man: As an editorial board member of Communications Biology, I can say that peer review is not as mysterious as some might believe. I have grown to appreciate that editors and peer reviewers in general have genuine intentions and interest in helping the authors to improve their work. Editors are here to help publish your work by enlisting qualified reviewers to assess the manuscript. 

Yuan Qin: With technological advancements such as web-based peer review, the process has changed a lot over time. Now peer review is faster, more streamlined and fairer. My views have also changed with different roles I’ve played as an author, reviewer and editor. As an author, I had realized the crucial role of reviewers and editors during peer review. However, now as an editor I feel honored with a genuine sense of responsibility, so I like the manuscript to be reviewed fairly and quickly during the review and editorial processes.

Michel Thiebaut de Schotten: As a reviewer, my view of peer review went from trying to find a reason to reject a paper to doing all I can to improve the quality of the manuscript submitted. Today, I very rarely suggest rejection as a reviewer.

When an editor and qualified peer reviewers collaborate efficiently, it results in a significantly improved manuscript (Krishnananda Chattopadhyay)

Given that you’ve worn all 3 hats—author, reviewer, and editor—what is something about peer review you wish everyone knew?

Si Ming Man: Peer review serves to improve a manuscript to a level that is acceptable for publication. Sometimes the views of the peer reviewers are expressed harshly and rejections are often hard to take. Reviewers, who are also authors, should remember that criticism can be expressed in a constructive way. Comments will likely be read by early-career researchers who have performed the study. Harsh comments from experts will have a negative effect on students and postdocs, so peer reviewers are encouraged to be mindful when they write their referee reports.

Yuan Qin: I think everyone should know that without peer review, researchers would potentially make erroneous decisions. The aim of peer review is to help authors to improve the quality of their research.

Michel Thiebaut de Schotten: Whether or not you like the paper you are reviewing, it will be published somewhere. The way I see it, an article can be published after a revision taking into consideration your recommendations or published as-is in a different journal. If you love your field of research, you’d better help authors getting their paper published where they submitted it rather than slaying it.  

As a reviewer, my view of peer review went from trying to find a reason to reject a paper to doing all I can to improve the quality of the manuscript submitted (Michel Thiebaut)

Krishnananda Chattopadhyay: We should keep in mind that the reviewers are human beings after all. They have their good and bad days; and these may matter when they are writing that report on your paper. I always try to remember that the reviewer is a fine person, who is reading my paper to help me do a little better science. In my experience, the acceptance rate of a reviewer to agree to a particular paper is about 30%. So, only three out of ten requests are accepted for a particular manuscript. It is not easy for these three persons to put aside their regular jobs, their teaching and administrative responsibilities and their grant writing stress to work on my manuscript. That too without any monetary or other obvious benefits. So, we (the authors) should be nice to them.

In my experience, most reviewers are nice people. My own manuscripts have been judged by at least 200 reviewers, and out of these 200, I cannot remember more than two incidents when the reviewers were utterly unreasonable. My father told me several times before he stopped talking for good that education makes people nice. Science is a part of education, which can be achieved only by a competent peer review process. 

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