Peer review key to trust in science

June 25, 2004

Scientific knowledge is special for two reasons. It has been arrived at by an experimental method that means that there are solid reasons for believing it. And it is published only when the scientific community agrees on its quality.

This works perfectly until academic life meets the outside world. As the campaign group Sense About Science reports this week, increased public interest in science works against the leisurely pace of peer review.

Sometimes research is publicised long before it is formally validated. More often, pressure groups and think-tanks produce rapid-fire opinions dressed up as research faster than academics can come out with verifiable facts, especially on economic and social issues.

Sense About Science wants researchers to make more of peer review, stressing its contribution to the confidence that users can have in science. It should certainly feature more in science education. But it will be hard to get outsiders interested in something that, in the end, is an internal part of the research process. Most people assume that scientists do not make claims they cannot justify. Usually, they are right. It would be a pity if they were regarded with the same suspicion as politicians or chief executives.

But people need more help to make sense of the different types of supposedly scientific information that is available. There is every difference between something lurking on websites whose editorial policies are unclear and material produced by an established researcher that happens not to have been through peer review yet. As Sense About Science points out, new unreviewed research is a mainstay of scientific conferences, whose organisers rely on it to raise interest among the public and experts alike.

Explaining peer review is an essential part of improving public engagement in science. There is wide interest in how scientists and other researchers make discoveries. How they know the truth of what they have found out, and how they convince their colleagues of it, is a story that deserves telling.

The measures proposed by Sense About Science are worth while but are only part of the story. The worst enemies of peer review are scientists themselves. Many enjoy keeping the media, industry and other users supplied with advance information. Will a scientist who oversteps the peer-review system be denounced or even deprived of funding? In other areas of public life, corner-cutting routinely ends careers. Why should science be any different?

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