Peer Review: The Bedrock of Science


By Gary Miller posted 11-29-2018 13:12


Communique 2018 Issue 4 Masthead

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has served as peer reviewers, not only for Toxicological Sciences (ToxSci), but for all journals. The output of the scientific enterprise has been increasing at an extraordinary rate over the past several years, resulting in a barrage of review requests. It is often a thankless job that requires time and energy. Here, I would like to address the importance of peer review to our enterprise and plead for your continued support.

Definition of Peer from Merriam-WebsterThe Society of Toxicology is composed of several thousand toxicologists, our peers. Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions for this term peer. One definition—interesting, but not helpful—is “a member of one of the five ranks (duke, marquess, earl, viscount, or baron) of the British peerage.” Another, and more appropriate, definition for us is “one that is of equal standing with another.” Again, one that is of equal standing with another. We rely on the input of our equals to judge the quality of our science. We do not rely on dictators, monarchs, administrators, newspaper editors, or unqualified readers; we rely on our peers. For toxicologists, that means individuals trained in the science of toxicology.

Peer review has been the bedrock of scientific research since its inception. Constructive criticism, commentary, feedback, and discussion of results and interpretations are essential aspects of science. Our ideas are challenged, we reformulate our work, and the science improves. In fact, it can be easily argued that science is what it is because of the improvements made via peer review. Gaining the respect of our colleagues by conducting high-quality research can be essential for career advancement.

Admittedly, it is not a perfect system. Those who conduct peer review are not perfect, so the peer review process itself cannot be perfect. It can be difficult finding reviewers with the appropriate expertise, and reviewers can and do make mistakes. This is why journals seek multiple reviewers with complementary expertise, after which associate editors or editors must weigh the collective evaluation of the manuscript and determine the final decision. This process is not formulaic and can be quite challenging. It requires judgment, wisdom, and the ability to identify our peers with both the wisdom and the time necessary to devote to the reviewing process.

Peer review has been the bedrock of scientific research since its inception.With numerous demands upon our time, it is tempting to ignore or decline review requests, but to keep the review system afloat, it is better to accept if you have the expertise and time to provide a timely and thorough review. It is OK to be selective. Selectivity may be accomplished by focusing on the journals of which you are on the editorial board, those affiliated with a particular scientific society, or those in which you have published. If you cannot commit to a review request, whenever possible, suggest alternative reviewers. Use requests for review as opportunities to teach trainees about how to conduct high-quality reviews. After discussing the confidentiality and responsibility that goes along with reviewing a manuscript, having a senior graduate student or postdoc assist with a review is a great way to provide mentorship and to demonstrate why peer review is so critical to our work.

Further, there has been a movement in science to get results out faster via posting preprints. Some may argue that this subverts the peer review system. This is not true; rather, the preprint process embraces peer review. These sites provide mechanisms for feedback (i.e., peer review), just in a slightly different form. In fact, this prepublication peer review is essentially the same feedback we seek when we present a poster or give a presentation at a meeting. ToxSci accepts submissions for regular review that have been subjected to the pre-peer-review process as preprints.

individual proofreadingScientists may not have noble titles like those of the British peerage, but when we complete manuscript peer reviews in a thorough and timely manner, we contribute to the noble mission of science. If scientists desire to have their research peer reviewed, they have an obligation to contribute to that system. I would argue that an active scientist who ceases to review science ceases to be a scientist! The roles are intertwined. I implore readers to commit to reviewing several manuscripts each year. Carve out time each month to make this critical contribution to the field. Include your trainees in the process. Science needs your expertise and your constructive criticism. The scientific enterprise and I thank you.