Time for the end of the peer show?

January 9, 1998

Last November The THES published an anonymous article on peer review. Its three authors, collectively dubbed "John Smith", called for an end to the grip of the old boys' club on the award of research grants and put forward a number of suggestions for reform and greater openness. Their request for anonymity arose from the fear that rocking the boat would damage their own and their departments' chances of success in grant applications.

They struck a chord. While most people agree that peer review, like democracy, is the worst system except for all the others, the flaws they highlighted are a general cause for concern: the possibilities for nepotism and for thieving or suppressing new ideas; the way hot competition for limited cash and precious research ratings increases such temptations; and the difficulty young people, particularly with divergent ideas, have getting started.

With the funding councils reviewing their research assessment methodologies, with every discipline and university arguing for criteria which will favour its type of activity, and with money getting ever tighter, it is essential that the review mechanisms for selective funding be as open and obviously fair as possible. Forthright debate on this complex and sensitive issue is essential if Britain is to keep its academic creativity.

The THES is therefore marking the start of 1998 by launching a debate on all aspects of peer review. Today, Richard Brook, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the largest of the research councils, launches that debate (page 14) with a description of the changes he has been introducing to the EPSRC's peer review system. From next week, in addition to our normal letters and opinion pages, an expanded, monthly Research section will provide extra space to develop the argument.

The debate will need to go wider than the way in which the research councils distribute funds, vital as that is. Peer review of articles for publication, particularly electronic publication, is an increasingly urgent issue. The Internet makes much more rapid publication possible. It also allows the publication of a lot of indifferent material. Peer-reviewed electronic journals are proliferating but are the safeguards adequate?

Applied research raises another clutch of issues. Does commercial confidentiality impede review of applied research programmes? Is peer review appropriate for applied work in any case, or is the market itself a sufficient review mechanism? At the moment purchasers of applied research may assess a department's competence at one remove by looking at its success in winning peer- reviewed basic research contracts. But does excellence automatically translate across? Many firms risk excessive cosiness by maintaining a limited range of research contacts with academics they know and trust but this may mean missing out on new ideas.

There are questions too about what counts as research and who the appropriate peers are to assess it. Ivor Gaber (left) makes the case for counting productions in research assessments of media studies departments, a case visual artists and musicians have been arguing in respect of exhibitions and compositions. Peers to assess this kind of work will not be exclusively fellow academics.

Describing such activities as research at all may seem an abuse of language, but while the only pot of gold available to selectively reward excellence in universities has "research" emblazoned on it everyone will want a share - a situation which will change only if the range of rewards is more varied and the definition of "peers" broader.

Because we accept "John Smith's" case that no-holds debate may damage people's chances of funding, and because we regard such debate as essential, we will (unusually for us) be willing to treat you all as John Smiths, withholding names and addresses if necessary.

So please write to us - by fax, snail mail or email (details on page 15).

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