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Peering in


Scientists have high hopes but low expectations of the peer review system, a new survey reveals. Ted Nield reports from the British Science Association Festival.

Geoscientist Online 9 September 2009

"That is the same paper I was going to write!"
"I've been stuck in an ice storm for two weeks"
"I'm getting married - I promise not to use this twice"

These are just a few of the unusual excuses that scientific journal editors have received from unresponsive reviewers. It appears, though, that the electronic age has done away with the traditional ones about manuscripts left on trains, slipped accidentally into the chipper, or eaten by the dog. Editors also report however that excuses are not the norm and that reviewers continue to juggle their reviewing duties with the increasing demands of lab, teaching and grant applications.

More seriously, though, is the question of whether peer review should detect fraud and misconduct. What does peer review do for science, and what does the scientific community want it to do? Does it illuminate good ideas or shut them down? Can it help people to make sense of science stories?

BSA These questions formed part of the largest ever survey of authors and reviewers, which was presented by the organisation Sense About Science at the British Science Festival yesterday. The Peer Review Survey 2009, compares results with similar questions from 2007. Tracey Brown (Sense About Science) discussed the report with science correspondent David Adam (The Guardian) and Peter Hayward (The Lancet Infectious Diseases) at the British Science Association, Surrey University.

Brown told the meeting that while detecting plagiarism and fraud might be a noble aim, it is not practical. The vast majority of authors and reviewers think that while peer review “should” detect plagiarism(81%) and fraud (79%), only a small amount (38% and 33%) thought of it capable of this.

Papers are not properly recognising previous work, Brown said. Most researchers surveyed (81%) thought peer review “should” ensure previous research is acknowledged, but only just of half think it currently does (54%), or is even capable of doing this (57%). This reflects, she said, current discussions within the research community over the a need for new studies to be properly set within the context of existing evidence. Currently The Lancet is the only major medical journal to require reports of new research to be preceded by, and to conclude with, reference to systematic reviews of other relevant evidence.
Researchers want to improve, but not change peer review: Most (69%) researchers are still satisfied with the current system of peer review (compared to 65% two years ago) but only a third (32%) think that the current system is the best that can be achieved.

Reviewers continue to want anonymity: Over half (58%) of researchers say they would be less likely to review if their signed report were to be published alongside the paper reviewed. Over three quarters (76%) favour the “double blind” system, but some researchers questioned whether authors identity can ever be truly anonymous.


The Peer Review Survey 2009 was developed by Sense About Science in consultation with editors and publishers and has been administered with a grant from publishers Elsevier. The full report will be available at

For the 2007 report go to: