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This page was published on 16/11/2006
Published: 16/11/2006

   Science in society

Published: 16 November 2006  
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Scientists have another look at peer review system

Has the traditional procedure of scientific peer review reached the level of its own incompetence? That was the focus of a recent conference in Prague organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the Czech Science Foundation (GACR), and the European Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCs). Attendees ultimately decided that peer review is still the best method for lending credibility to research results, but agreed there is room for improvement. The meeting of European and other international experts concluded with calls for a single international platform of review.

Scientific peer review reviewed for best practice.  © Matt+
Scientific peer review reviewed for best practice.
Common protocol usually dictates that once research has been completed, it is published by its authors for review by the scientific community at large. If the findings stand up to a rigorous public debate by authorities in a particular field, they then come to be considered as valid, if not a general rule.

The Prague Peer Review 2006 conference discussed whether or not this remains a valid system for the 21st century. In a presentation at the conference, Chris Caswill, visiting Professor at the University of Exeter, notes that peer review enjoys general acceptance by the scientific community, but can fall victim to such unscientific factors as bias, conservatism and politics. John O'Reilly, the chief executive of the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) went as far as to call the system ‘tyrannical'.

The conference organising committee states that despite its widespread institutional acceptance, used by funding agencies to decide the awarding of monies for research and publishers to select and to screen submitted manuscripts, peer review is a relatively recent invention. They claim that with the advent of a host of new funding schemes and bodies, such as the European Research Council, a renewed debate is required on the position peer review should occupy in the future.

The conference addressed three specific questions related to the peer review protocol: Does peer review inhibit truly innovative research, how can the process be harmonised and integrated with new tools, and what are the major societal, cultural and ethical challenges of future peer review processes and how could they be incorporated?

Participants in the debate suggested that single Europe-wide panels of expert review might be the next step in the evolution of peer review.

“If you look at the US National Science Foundation [NSF] and take the example of laser physics, the experts within the field from across the whole continent are divided into several specialised expert panels. If we could do this in Europe, it would add value to the division of scientific expertise,” president of the European Science Foundation Ian Halliday said.

“I can see a case now for all of the bids within one scientific field from across the whole of Europe being dealt with in one place at one time,” he said. “This way we could share European expertise but the money would remain national. I think that this would be a suitable alternative to current European schemes which try to share common European funding.”

Exerts pointed to an existing best practice standard, the Quality Assurance Netherlands Universities (QANU), already established in the Netherlands for public research organisations, as a possible starting point for such pan-European integration of peer review.

For continued debate on what's next for peer review, ESF has organised a member state forum, several workshops and a final meeting scheduled for 2007.

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European Science Foundation
Prague Peer Review 2006 homepage

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