Report of Working Party on Peer Review

From: Tracey Brown <>
Date: Wed, 7 Jul 2004 13:16:48 +0100

Discussion paper from a Working Party
on equipping the public with an understanding of peer review
ISBN 0-9547974-0-X Sense About Science
(62pp., Executive Summary pp. ix-xii)

The public should be equipped to ask tougher questions about the status
of scientific research claims

Every year, hundreds of thousands of papers about the findings of
scientific research are assessed for competence, significance and
originality by scientists publishing work in the same field. Many weak
or flawed papers are rejected. Others are criticised, improved and
published. This process of "peer review" is a much more reliable guide
to whether findings are plausible than who conducted the work or how it
was funded. But scientists have rarely explained that peer review is
used to decide which research is worthy of publication - and very few
people outside the science world know to ask whether research has been
peer reviewed.

That needs to change, according to a discussion paper from a Working
Party[1], convened by the Sense About Science trust, on how to help the
public to evaluate confusing and contradictory claims about scientific
research. While it is almost impossible for people outside a scientific
field to assess research, they can ask more searching questions about
how other experts have judged the work. Scientists, commentators and
educators who are committed to seeing public discussion informed by
higher-quality research should use every opportunity to explain peer
review so that more people can use that knowledge to question and weigh
up different claims.

The discussion paper from the Working Party includes a Guide to Peer
Review, which explains the process and discusses issues including
anonymity, editorial bias, "maverick" science, commercial research and
conflicts of interest.

Tracey Brown, the Director of Sense About Science and a member of the
Working Party, said:

"The paper is proposing a simple cultural shift towards wider knowledge
of the peer-review process, so that all people with an interest in
scientific issues start asking tough questions about the information
that is put before them: questions like, "have these research claims
been peer reviewed?" "has the study been published in a recognised
scientific journal?" and "how many other research papers have reached
the same conclusions?".

"It is well-recognised that it's easy to generate publicity, concern or
political attention on the back of unsubstantiated research claims.
When the Working Party reviewed the contentious claims of recent years,
relating to the MMR vaccine, mobile phones, GM crops and transgenic
animals among others, it was surprised that so little had been said
about how scientific peers had assessed the claims and, in some cases,
why the research had not been shown to those peers before the results
were made public. That information is crucial for non-experts weighing
up the claims and people should know to ask for it.

"As most scientists will tell you, peer review is by no means the last
word on a piece of research, but a culture of explaining and asking
about peer review all along the line - from radio phone-ins to
ministerial briefings - will put a lot more pressure on people bringing
research claims to the public to explain exactly what the status of the
work is."

1. The Working Party was convened in November 2002 by Sense About
Science and chaired by Professor Sir Brian Heap CBE FRS. The other
members are: Dr Derek Bell, Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, Ms Tracey
Brown, Dr Peter Cotgreave, Lord Drayson, Ms Fiona Fox, Mr Tony Gilland,
Professor Stevan Harnad, Professor Sir Peter Lachmann FRS, Sir John
Maddox FRS, Professor Peter Main and Professor Alan Malcolm.
[2]. The discussion paper is collated and presented by Tracey Brown,
published by Sense About Science and designed by Institute of Physics
Publishing. The cost of printing has been met by the Medical Research
Council on behalf of all of the Research Councils. Publication of this
paper has been endorsed by a sub-group of the Board of Trustees of Sense
About Science. Sense About Science is a registered charity. One of its
objectives is to promote public knowledge of how scientific research is
conducted. See Appendix 6 of the full discussion paper.
[3]. The full paper will be available to download from
from publication date and also in hard copy.

Further information: call Tracey Brown on
(44) 1795 591 975 or (44) 7813 792 673,
Received on Wed Jul 07 2004 - 13:16:48 BST

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