AN INDEPENDENT systems designer believes he has come up with a reproach-proof system of peer review, which could end claims of prejudice and secrecy in dishing out research money.
The idea from Peter Jefferies, who runs Jefferies Automotive Systems Ltd in Warwick, uses the Internet to make the process as transparent as possible.
Under his system, applicants would send in outline proposals of their research with suggested referees and an indication of the relevant field. This would be displayed on a web page, together with a list of the referees proposed.
Those who had expressed an interest in knowing about proposals in that field would be given the page's web address. They and the applicant would be able to send in comments on the choice of referees and these would be added to the web page.
The referees' comments would go on to the page, together with those from other interested parties. On the web page, the applicant would respond to all of the comments before a decision was made and added to the page, with reasons. If the outline were approved, the applicant would be invited to submit a full proposal, and more comments would be invited. Mr Jefferies said: "This system is beyond reproach. Operated this way, it would overcome all of the questions raised about peer review."
The system's greatest advantage is flexibility, Mr Jefferies said. It could be applied to any kind of work requiring peer review, and any objections raised could easily be accommodated.
For example, Mr Jefferies would like the system to discourage the applicant, referee or anyone else involved from seeking anonymity. But if there were good reasons not to identify people involved, they could be explained on the web page. If people found themselves overwhelmed by material, they could narrow their field or restrict access to the site in an agreed way.
And anyone worried about having ideas stolen could restrict the level of information given in the proposal, the people with access to the web page, or both.
"The important thing is to start off completely open and to have very good reasons for restrictions," Mr Jefferies said. He said the scheme could be set up in a matter of days.
Richard Brook, chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said Mr Jefferies' scheme was an interesting one and he was always pleased to hear alternatives to the existing system.
He was concerned, however, that it would not offer enough protection for academics worried about others gaining access to their original ideas. Mr Brook also warned that once the system's novelty wore off, serious academics would not bother adding comments to the site and that the process could take too long.