Should non-scientists be involved in peer review?

Image: Agriculture, Food and Rural communities via flickr
Image: Agriculture, Food and Rural communities via flickr

In my opinion, no…

Peer review is the most widely used way to check scientific research before it sees the light of day. It isn’t only used in science – most academic disciplines use it. The process, just like being tried by a jury of your peers, means your work is assessed by those who, broadly speaking, are your equals. These ‘reviewers’ are not a random set of scientists but are scientists working in the same/a similar field to you – so if you’re a biochemist, you don’t need to worry about being asked to review a leading astrophysics’ paper!

It is a debatable question about whether science should rely on peer review as much as it does – It isn’t a perfect system and it certainly tends to bias toward papers that give positive and exciting results. Experiments that give negative or ambiguous results are less likely to make the cut – which, in certain circumstances, could be even more beneficial than positive results! For example, in the medical sciences and drug development, it would be extremely important to know if a drug doesn’t work.

In my opinion, I think peer review in its current format makes more sense than any other quality control system used (despite the issues mentioned above, which to me, seem solvable). Moreover, having non-specialists and non-scientists check through papers that are published in peer reviewed journals will not help – just go to a good library or shop and pick up a copy of Nature and try to read the articles in there and you’ll understand what I mean. Peer reviewed journals like Nature contain cutting edge research papers. No one reads Nature just for fun – front line researchers dip in, pick up the occasional paper that is relevant to them, and usually ignore the rest. And science students do the same!

There are situations where having non-scientists involved more heavily does make sense – journals aimed at a public understanding of science, for example. Obviously Guru is not a journal, but the content contributes as one form of public understanding within science. At the risk of mentioning other magazines, New Scientist publish papers that appeal to the informed general public. And while they are perhaps too technical for my mum they also lack the quality and depth of a journal and so cannot be used for a student or a researcher in the field. Nor are they peer reviewed. Having non-scientists involved in the writing process of such articles would certainly be a benefit.

Peer review does allow for weird and unexpected claims to be examined on a wider scale – even if it’s challenging what the established scientists believe is true. And whether the establishment finally identifies the mistakes or heaves a sigh of relief, as in the ‘faster than light neutrinos’ controversy a couple of years ago, or even changes its mind, as with Darwin, Einstein and Mullis (who developed PCR).

Answer by Lewis Pike

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below to have your say…

 

Article by Lewis Pike

September 1, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.


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