Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor R N Franklin (PR 08)


This submission is made by someone who has been involved as an active scientist for more than fifty years, who has been the Editor of a scientific journal - Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics and currently referees for six journals in this country and the United States at a rate of about twenty papers a year. Additionally he has been so concerned about the process of peer review that he wrote an article on the subject published by Physics World last December hoping to provoke a discussion amongst the scientific community, so he welcomes the initiative of the Parliamentary Select Committee.

1.  See peer review, thoroughly and conscientiously done as a fundamental part of this process underpinning scientific progress. My concern has been the tendency on the part of journals generally to reduce the process of reviewing/refereeing to a "box ticking" and point scoring exercise to assist the burgeoning staff in the offices of the publishers handle submissions, when what should be occurring is a dialogue between author(s) and a referee.

2.  As the author of some 200 papers, on several occasions I have had to challenge the competence or performance of referees, and so far have never lost a challenge. So I believe the ability to mount such a challenge as important as that in law where the "accused" can challenge "jurors". This usually involves adjudication by a member of the Board, and I believe that it should apply to all journals. Several allow authors to name possible referees, provided they have not been associated with the work, and the number exceeds that normally used by the journal so that there is an element of choice by the journal.

3.  But I believe that the tradition of anonymity followed by most journals so far as referees are concerned, is contrary to the current trend towards openness and accountability. I would favour a system where the names of referees were published as a footnote when the paper concerned has been accepted and published. This would help the readership assess the quality of the work; furthermore it would give the referee(s) pause for thought.

4.  Moving on to referees, these are chosen by the staff of journals, not entirely at random, but it is not clear what qualifications such staff have to carry out such a task. Nowadays most universities ask for a detailed justification as to his credentials when inviting someone to be an examiner for a Ph. D. This is a lower level activity than refereeing for a journal, but nowadays the result of an oral examination is open to challenge, so both the institution and the examiner need to be protected against such a challenge. There is a nominal fee for carrying out a PhD Viva, but refereeing for a journal carries no reward and thus a referee cannot be held to account.

5.  I referred above to the current trend to reducing refereeing to a box ticking exercise. The questions asked do not relate to what should be required of a referee. I give a few examples of the information I regularly provide unasked - (i) How much time did you spend? (ii) Did you familiarize yourself with the references given? (iii) Did you check the detail of the mathematics? (Only relevant for theoretical sections).

6.  Thus I would favour a system in which refereeing/peer review became a "professional" activity. This could be introduced by journals monitoring the performance of younger referees for their first five to ten occasions as an "apprenticeship" after which they might be described as "professional". (Some journals already send me Christmas cards!). The attraction of this is that employers could use such information when assessing members of staff for promotion rather than mere numbers of published papers.

7.  While it is possible for authors to issue a subsequent Erratum, this does not deal with the situation where the work is discredited and for a time some members of the community know that it is discredited, while others continue to quote it. A mechanism whereby authors themselves could announce that their work was incorrectly interpreted, would allow retraction with honour.

8.  Finally, I would commend to all intending authors the practice of circulating material intended for publication, prior to submission, for comment and improvement. This might be described as "friendly refereeing", but I know that many active workers who trust one another already do this to great effect.

9.  The tendency towards secrecy and the use of copyright I regard as essentially unscientific. But this does not apply to the process of patenting which involves specified application of pure knowledge and has its own rules of disclosure.

Professor RN Franklin DSc, FREng, CBE
Visiting Professor
The Open University

24 February 2011

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 28 July 2011