In honor of national peer review week (September 21st through 25th), I am recognizing the process that has enhanced science over the past 100 years. Peer review is the practice by which a scientific report is evaluated by other experts in the field for importance and scientific rigor before it is published. It is the cornerstone of scientific integrity throughout the world. The best scientific journals peer review all of their papers in a very arduous manner before they can be published.
I have been a peer reviewer of thousands of manuscripts during my career and also have had every one of my manuscripts submitted to peer review journals. I have also edited journals and overseen peer review discussions between reviewers and editors. While we all acknowledge there are some abuses where people may try to prevent competitors’ papers from being published, the overall value of peer review is so great that the problems are well exceeded by the benefit.
To provide some perspective on the value of peer review, I can tell you that almost uniformly the peer review process has helped my publications. Having an independent set of eyes review my publications often provides insights into my data that I had not perceived myself. In addition, peer reviewers have suggested additional analyses that have in most cases confirmed my conclusions in a more definitive manner. This has resulted in better publications that are often easier to understand and therefore used by the scientific community.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined the peer review process. In the pressure to find new insights into coronavirus disease, papers have often been rushed into publication without full review. Even worse, papers are being posted on websites such as BioRX and Lancet’s pre-publication site without any review. These papers are immediately picked up by news organizations and publicized as if proven fact. This has allowed serious and potentially dangerous concepts to be advanced in the world community.
Finally, some of the abuses of the peer review process are causing journals to reinvigorate the structure of peer review. Yesterday, the medical Journal Lancet, which has been publishing some of the most provocative (incorrect) COVID-19 science, admitted they have problems with their peer review process and have come up with a number of proposed changes.
In an article entitled “Learning from a retraction“ the editors of the Lancet admitted that the review process for the discredited paper from a company called Surgisphere needed to be improved to prevent publishing similarly fictitious data in the future.
As a result of their review, they have made changes to the declarations we seek from authors, insisting they commit to having several authors review the data before they submit the manuscript. They also will require that the authors make their large datasets or real-world data freely available, so that others can validate the veracity before it gets published.
They end by saying that “all Lancet journals will now introduce the additional peer-review requirements for papers based on large, real-world datasets.” Also, all Lancet editors will “explicitly ask reviewers if they have concerns about research integrity or publication ethics regarding the manuscript they are reviewing.”
It is about time.
If we don’t have rigorous, independent peer review of the coming data from vaccine trials, no one will believe them. It really is the only hope.