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Peer Review

Professor Scott Fraser on December 3, 2012 at 11:53 am

Richard Smith, the ex Editor of the British Medical Journal, has strong views about peer review. He feels pre-publication peer review is no longer necessary and should be replaced with post-publication review.

Currently most journals, when they receive a paper, send it to a number of experts in that field. These experts (i.e. peer reviewers) make comments and the paper is either accepted with alterations or rejected. The system has its criticisms, most stemming from the word ‘peer’ (i.e. your equals and contemporaries), some of whom may be your professional ‘competitors’. Peer review can allow the reviewer to both reject your work and get tips for their own future work.

The system that Richard Smith advocates is that all papers are published online and then anyone who wants to review or criticize the paper can then do so. After a period of time, the paper can be rewritten in light of these comments. Alternatively, the paper is left as it is but readers can also view any criticisms or comments. This has the advantage, in this electronic age, of adding a certain dynamism to the publication process (i.e. once a paper is published that is the beginning of its academic life not necessarily the end).

There are some advantages of this system not least speed and removal of peer review bias - indeed some physics and maths journals already use this method. Personally, I prefer the current system with all its flaws. The mistake many make is thinking that the peer reviewers decide if a paper is accepted or rejected. They do not. It is the editor or the editorial board who make this decision. They should make this decision not just on one review, but upon their own analysis of the paper and topic and all the reviews.

In my experience, peer review invariably adds a lot to a paper, including missing references, better analysis, better grammar or simply congratulating the authors. Reviewers can change a good paper into a great one. That this is done confidentially allows reviewers to speak the truth and therefore, generally, to give authors insights that are more valuable.

As the publication times from Dove show, pre-publication peer review does not necessarily mean that publication is slowed. Ultimately, well written, rapid peer review is a safety net for authors and readers. It means that papers can be refined before general release, possibly avoiding embarrassing mistakes and tempering novel findings with expert judgments before they are released to the wider audience.

As I have said many times before, the peer review system is like Winston Churchill's view of democracy: It is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives.

Professor Scott Fraser
Editor-in-Chief, Clinical Ophthalmology


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