U.K. Parliament Panel Reviews Peer Review

Following an inquiry into peer review in scientific research, U.K. parliamentarians have concluded that, despite many criticisms and little evidence of its effectiveness, the traditional practice of having research articles evaluated by anonymous colleagues before publication is valued by the community and shouldn't be completely abandoned. But in their report released today, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee says that innovative approaches to disseminating research, including preprint servers, open peer review, and online repositories, should be investigated as they could remove some of the reviewing burden on researchers.

The lawmakers looked at postpublication peer review approaches, such as having online commentary by other researchers. Such methods "represent an enormous opportunity for experimentation with new media and social networking tools," they said, although they caution that such tools should only be used "as a means of supplementing prepublication review."

The fundamental aim of peer review, the report says, is to ensure that research publications are scientifically sound and enable others to reproduce the work. Given that gold standard, the report recommends that unless there is a strong reason against it, all data should be fully disclosed and made publicly available at the time of publication, particularly if it is the outcome of publicly funded research. That recommendation, however, has prompted some concern. "In our experience, most misunderstandings from scientific research come from an absence of meaning and context … [and] Preparing and scrutinising papers for publication is a vital part of establishing the meaning and context," says Tracey Brown of the pressure group Sense About Science. "It is not clear from the Committee's report what the problem is that would be addressed from raw data publication nor the other costs and effects of demanding it."

The report also addresses the topic of research integrity. The committee acknowledged that policing publications for research integrity was not the job of peer reviewers but noted that reviewers do sometimes bring possible instances of scientific misconduct to the attention of journal editors. The report calls the general oversight of research integrity in the U.K. "unsatisfactory." The government should set up a single body with responsibility for research integrity, it says, along the lines suggested by the U.K. Research Integrity Futures Working Group, a body that made recommendations last year.

Another area of concern highlighted by the report was the use of journal impact factors as an indicator of the quality of particular papers. "There is an element of chance in getting articles accepted in high-impact journals, depending on topicality and other factors. It is important that anyone assessing the quality of work by an individual researcher or research institution considers the value of the published articles themselves, rather than relying on impact factor," said committee chair Andrew Miller.