As a first year part-time PhD student, I know very little about peer review. I knew it happened, I had a vague sense of what it was, but essentially I was clueless. This is why I applied to attend the workshop by Sense About Science. I found the day very informative and while I didn’t feel able to participate in the debates at the time, I feel much more able to now. I found out about the strengths and weakness of peer review, how it can be an informative learning process but equally how it can be a slow and frustrating process. Panelists and participants talked about alternatives to the current system, such as the system by F100 research.
Following my attendance of this workshop, my supervisor asked me to help mark some MSc projects. I was slightly daunted by this prospect, thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? I have only finished my master’s recently myself. They probably know more than me! What if I’m too harsh or not harsh enough? What if I miss something glaringly obvious and my supervisor thinks I’m stupid?’ I suppose in a lot of ways this is similar to how people feel about reviewing their first paper.
I found out later that he had more than one PhD student reviewing the projects, so it didn’t matter too much if I missed something (and he reviewed all of them before submitting the final mark). This experience made me think about the peer review process. I remember the workshop saying there is no formal training for this type of work. Why?! I agree with a fellow attendee at the workshop, Fiona Russell, who suggested in her blog that within a PhD, students should be required to learn the skills with their supervisor (see here ); there needs to be some kind of formal training to help people to do this. I am meeting my supervisor soon to get feedback about how well I did, and I hope, like Fiona’s first peer review, this will reassure me that I have done a satisfactory job and be a great learning experience.
The other thing I found shocking – but more seasoned scientists may take this as given – is that there is no reward for reviewing. This is something that is very important for quality science and while scientists benefit by knowing what others are doing, they are essentially doing it just to be helpful and for the love of science. However, I do think having a paid reviewer, which is something that was discussed in the workshop, is a dangerous thing. How would a scientist keep up with the field while not working as a scientist themselves? Some kind of benefit would be useful and Fiona Russell comes up with some interesting ideas, such as being able to describe yourself as being a reviewer with a specific rating reflecting how good you are at doing it.
I also found out about the campaign by Sense About Science encouraging the public to ask, ‘Is it peer reviewed?’ This is a very interesting initiative as I think a lot of people take ‘scientific’ claims as gospel and don’t think about whether the rest of the scientific community accepts it. However, as Siobhan Dennis points out, even when an article is peer reviewed, that doesn’t make it right. Members of the public would need a set of criteria to help them decide what is good science and what are strategies used to try and bamboozle people with science (even scientists! – see Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ for examples).
I wonder how much non-scientists can ever engage in the process and understand whether claims are sensationalist or not, as even scientists find it difficult to weigh up the evidence in field other than their own. I am looking forward to the Sense About Science’s media workshop to see how scientists can engage the public and media.
Following my introduction to peer review, I look forward to dipping my toes in the murky waters as I am hoping to submit my own review soon. Maybe following this, my opinions and thoughts on the system will evolve further.