Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the Wellcome Trust (PR 55)


1.  Peer review ensures that scientific findings and research funding proposals are subjected to independent scrutiny by experts in the field, and as such is a crucial element of the scientific endeavour. The quality of peer review depends entirely on the expertise, rigour, generosity and fairness of the researchers who undertake it. Although this approach is, at times, onerous for the research community, it does provide a form of continuing professional development through their involvement. There is a need to increase levels of understanding of peer review amongst policymakers and the wider public - including its importance, its limitations and the added value provided by the researchers who conduct it.


2.  We consider that the process of peer review is an integral and irreplaceable part of the scientific enterprise - both at the publication stage and in the context of research funding decisions. At publication, it ensures that research findings have been scrutinised by experts in their field (who may be from academia, industry or other sectors) and are supported by the underlying data. Similarly, at the funding stage, it helps to ensure that the allocation of funds is based on appraisal of the scientific quality of research proposals by independent experts. Although peer review is not a perfect system and imposes a significant burden on the research community, the checks and balances it provides are absolutely core to the scientific endeavour. We do not believe that any viable alternative model exists.

3.  A key concern raised in relation to the current peer review system is the associated workload for researchers who provide this review, often on an unpaid basis. Reviewing submitted papers and funding applications forms an integral part of the work of these researchers, and does provide benefits in terms of their ongoing development and breadth of knowledge of their field. But the burden is considerable. A recent study by JISC estimated that UK academics spend a total of two to three million hours per year acting as reviewers, at a cost to the university sector in terms of academic time of between £110 million and £165 million.1 Meanwhile, the volume of published research is continuing to increase. Senior scientists in a given research field may often be in particularly strong demand to undertake reviews. The pressure on researchers - especially those leading their fields - leads to a significant proportion of requests for review being turned down, and may in turn limit the depth and quality of review in the system.

4.  Other commonly raised criticisms of peer review are that it can sometimes slow or limit the emergence of new ideas that challenge established norms in a field; that it has the potential to be abused by scientists in some cases to protect their own interests; and that it can lead to undue delays in the dissemination of scientific knowledge - for example, when reviewers request additional experiments that may have been beyond the scope of the original study.


5.  Whilst we believe peer review remains vital, it is important that publishers and funders actively explore ways in which they can help to reduce its burden, whilst not compromising its quality.

Peer review in publication

6.  We believe that the continuing transition towards open access publishing approaches over recent years offers some important opportunities. In particular, it can help to ensure that high quality research can find a route to peer-reviewed publication, and that the entire published output of research is free at the point of access for ongoing review and scrutiny by the scientific community after publication - allowing new ideas to emerge no matter where they are published, and ultimately providing more opportunities for the quality of a paper to be judged on its intrinsic merit (rather than the journal in which it appears).

7.  The key challenges in the peer review system in the context of the open access movement were discussed at a recent workshop on "Innovation in Scientific Publishing" which was convened by the Wellcome Trust in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society - the consensus emerging was that:

—  the burden on researchers of reviewing papers is excessive, and we need to move away from the current system where the same paper is often reviewed multiple times by different journals;

—  whilst delegates agreed on balance that reviewers should not be paid, there was wide consensus that their contribution needed to be recognised; and

—  reviewers should not be encouraged to ask for additional obvious experiments over and above those reported - if they do, editors need to use their judgement to curtail this.

8.  Several publishers are already adopting innovative approaches to reduce the burden of peer review that are worthy of note. The approach adopted by PLOS One - where the peer review process focuses solely on whether the findings and conclusions are justified by the results and methodology presented, rather than on assessment of the relative importance of the research or perceived level of interest it will generate - has both reduced the burden on the reviewer and the time it takes to get a paper published.2 Another interesting model is that adopted by the Society for Neuroscience - where reviews of rejected papers are passed onto other journals to which the paper is subsequently submitted.3

9.  Several publishers are also seeking to introduce more transparency into the peer review process - with some journals now using fully open peer review, where the identity of reviewers and their comments are published alongside the article. This could offer some benefits in terms of increasing quality, ensuring accountability and potentially enabling greater recognition for reviewer's contributions. However, it would clearly raise concerns if reviewers did not feel able to comment openly or fully on the work, or were discouraged from providing reviews altogether. We would argue that it would not at this stage be appropriate for all forms of peer review.

Peer review in funding decisions

10.  As a research funder, there are a number of approaches we are using to attempt to ease the burden on reviewers, whilst ensuring the quality of review. We actively acknowledge that there are different forms of peer review (for example, peer review by external "remote" written referee reports, and peer review by expert committees, sometimes on the basis of interview) and we apply each judiciously at the appropriate stage of the application process.

11.  The approaches we are currently using to obtain the most effective, efficient peer review include making more active use of a preliminary triage process - both through independent expert advisory committees or our scientifically-trained staff (where this is appropriate) so that a smaller subset of grant applications are sent out for review to external referees. We have also worked to shorten and focus our application and review forms. In common with other funders, we have used peer review "colleges" for some schemes to build communities of trusted reviewers, who have agreed to be included. In addition, we actively track the number of approaches to reviewers to reduce over-burdening particular individuals.


12.  The selection of suitable reviewers relies to a large extent on the expertise of editorial staff at journals, and scientifically-qualified staff at funding agencies. As a funder, our staff typically search the published literature for suitable reviewers, maintain an overview of the field, seek advice from members of our expert committees, and develop networks of contacts. Referee selection is also aided by inviting the applicant to suggest names of suitable reviewers. Whilst it is of course not appropriate to select reviewers exclusively on this basis, it can identify a helpful range of expertise appropriate to the subject area.

13.  Selecting the appropriate balance of expertise for reviewers for a particular proposal is key. As the research communities in some areas are fairly small, there is often value in looking beyond specialists in the area covered, and including a number of reviewers bringing different perspectives. This is particularly true where there is benefit in examining a proposal from several angles (focusing variously, for example, on technical issues, the use of animals or study design).


14.  Peer review is at its heart a very simple concept - namely that of independent expert scrutiny. We believe that there is an important need to ensure that peer review is more widely understood amongst both policy makers and the general public. This should include acknowledgement of both the benefits and limitations of peer review, and of the significant role played by academic researchers and the added value they provide. We consider that the development of high quality engagement activities to promote understanding of, and dialogue around, the scientific process and the key importance of peer review within this should represent a continuing priority for funders. Clearly scientists have a key role to play, and we encourage them embrace opportunities to engage in such dialogue.

15.  It is also vital that the importance of peer review is respected by those communicating scientific findings. In all cases, it should be made absolutely clear whether a particular finding has been subject to peer review or not, and appropriate caution exercised where this is not the case. It is vital that the scientific community, the media, and other groups involved in science communication act with responsibility and integrity, and recognise the inherent value of peer review in terms of ensuring results and ideas are based on robust research. Failure to do so will risk undermining public trust in science.


The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. We are independent of both political and commercial interests.


1  See "The value of UK HEI's to the publishing process" (JISC, Nov 2010) (accessed 4 Mar 2011)

2  See "PLOS One - editorial and peer review process" (accessed 4 March 2011)

3  See About the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium (NPRC) (accessed 4 March 2011)

Wellcome Trust

10 March 2011

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 28 July 2011