1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · News

Peer review under scrutiny



Stem cell scientists have questioned the integrity of the peer review system.


Peer review is one of the pillars of scientific objectivity (write Deputy Director Dr Christine Hauskeller and researcher Jean Harrington), yet there is a debate surrounding the question of anonymity in the reviewing system. Scientific journals and funding institutions commonly use single-blinded reviewing, a process where peer reviewers remain anonymous to the authors as opposed to double-blinded where the reviewer is not aware of whose work they are evaluating.

In either case, the reviewers’ judgement is decisive for whether or not a research project or scientific line of inquiry is funded or a paper published.

Stem cell scientists have brought up a debate about the peer review system in their field, criticizing it as potentially stifling research, prone to unreasonable or obstructive reviewing, and cliquish, writing an ‘open letter’ which was reported by the BBC. The scientists criticize the role of journals and their competition, the over-emphasis on citations and impact factors for success and the use of a select group of reviewers.

The influence of dominant scientific perspectives and the power of the referee drive the development both of areas of inquiry and individual careers. The lack of transparency or accountability of the reviewers leads to a hierarchy within the publishing system. That hierarchy and the decisions as to who reviews what are themselves not based on the principles of peer review or accountability.

In our sociological fieldwork on stem cell research practice we collected many views reflecting how the mechanics of making science are perceived and rated by the actors themselves. The data indicate that the scientists are highly aware of the conflicts of interest that surround the peer review system. They acknowledge that everybody wants to publish in the ‘best’ journals and that the best journals want to publish not only the best science but also the flashiest and trendiest science, and beat their competitor journals to doing it.

The facts that conflict of interest is a key concept in both submitting and reviewing a paper and that it is possible in some journals to identify by name direct competitors, so that they are not picked as reviewers, acknowledge the inherent flaw in the system: that it is vulnerable to manipulative or destructive action. Ideal peer review is based on a shared understanding of honorable exchange of expertise. The current competitive settings in which science operates, globally and nationally, across and between fields, may not provide the right spaces to nurture and practice this ideal.

Clearly, changes toward a more transparent system of named review would foster a more respectful attitude toward the work of others, upon which excellent science can flourish.