Peer review: where to now?

January 16, 1998

The peer-review system does seem to be an old-boys' club, predominantly managed by old professors from old universities, giving money predominantly to old universities.

The same people sit on research assessment committees that decide your future financial fortunes. It is an incestuous loop the Pharoahs would have been proud of.

But does it promote long-term progress? No, it does not.

Does it promote stagnancy and a downturn in the country's research profile? Too late, it already has.

The peer-review system is unfair. Everyone acknowledges that the anonymous system allows unscrupulous activity and suppression but most people are afraid to do anything about it. Many grant-awarding bodies even refuse to give the anonymous comments of the reviewer. But what really galls is that many reviewers are unsuited to the task, being too far removed from real bench research or in the wrong specialism.

If you are lucky you get reviewers' comments from a failed grant but no explanation from the committee as to why they then rejected it. Where the peer-review system really fails is at the final committee level, where a small group of people get to set their own agenda with absolutely no redress. How many of these committees really do promote innovation and check the validity of the reviewers' comments?

Grant bodies talk of supporting new researchers and new universities, but most money is still going to new investigators in older universities or in established research groups to which the grant body has given money before.

I was heartened that Richard Brook and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are sticking their necks out and reviewing their system. The method of using both applicant-nominated and college-approached reviewers seems fairer, especially since shortlisted applicants may be interviewed and have the chance to ask the committee what qualifies them to make the decision. Let us hope other councils and charities do the same.

Brook makes much sense when he refers to widening the age of reviewers to reflect the research community, but these committees should stick their necks out further and put young researchers on the chairs beside them.

Colin McGuckin, Faculty of science, Kingston University

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