Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

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In the editorial in August’s Nature Chemical Biology, we share our thoughts on peer review. As you can imagine, the exact timing of an editorial on this topic coincides with the peer review trial and debate going on over at Nature, but the thoughts within the article (as well as many related ideas) are frequently on our minds. My most recent inspiration, however, comes from a trip to a convenience store to buy some toothpaste. The veritable cornucopia of choices (even within a single brand!) made me wonder: if we need 50 different kinds of toothpaste to satisfy what seems a fairly simple concept (of cleaning our teeth), how will we, in the face of an equally overwhelming number of choices, ever come to an agreement on a system as complex and important as peer review? I guess one comforting thing is that until we can figure out a better way to conduct this process, our current method seems to be working pretty well.

Some major questions on our minds:

How do we make sense of all the different options being proffered as changes to the current peer-review system?

How long do new ideas need to be tested before we agree that they are better or worse than the current system?

Is it a reasonable expectation that scientists make time to referee papers on a voluntary basis, as is being explored in the Nature trial?

How would we prevent scientists from encouraging their friends to submit overly positive reviews?

What rewards could/should there be for acting as a referee?

Can/does science exist outside of a political environment, where professors need to worry about the good opinion of their peers?

Obviously, this topic is of great significance to us, and we have many ideas of what the answers to these questions could be. But we already know what we think about it – tell us your thoughts!

Catherine (Assistant Editor, Nature Chemical Biology)


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    Mushy said:

    I think the final question you raise is by far the most pertinent. As a consequence of the stiff competition for grant money, science seems to have become much less subjective.

    In a “publish-or-perish” world, it is wrong that the future career of an individual can be influenced not solely by the quality of the research they carry out, but but also influenced by personal grudges or relationships.

    The stifling objectivity instilled by personal vendettas, friendships, or aspirations was the reason I left life as a chemist for the far less Macchiavellian world of investment banking.

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    Paul Docherty said:

    The process you are introducing is very interesting; in effect, you have increased the sample size for peer review to a far larger amount, therby reducing the effect of personal or political bias. But the nature of the mechanism (web based) means that the demographic has changed to a potentially younger and more web-literate group. This would appear to isolate the contributions from the older and more established researchers. Of course, what I have stated is a massive generalisation, but perhaps you will notice a trend.

    The reward of being a referee should no more than plus point for ones curriculum vitae, showing a certain prowess and respect. But there is a problem that, being a rather prestigious journal, Nature publications garner a lot of envy, even jealousy from authors peers. Then suspicion begins to creep in; “How did X manage to get that into Nature…” Of course, most of this, as I said, is jealousy, but can form a skewed image, where those who have peer reviewed might find it a little easier to get published.

    Best of luck – I hope the community is open-minded and just.