Commons committee looking at peer review

Posted on January 28, 2011 by


The Commons Science & Technology Committee have just announced a new inquiry looking at peer review, exploring how it is working, how it could work better and whether there are alternatives. Medical research charities use peer review to decide what science to fund (using this process to allocate research grants is a required part of being a member of AMRC) and the scientists they fund have their work peer reviewed before it is published. However like all systems, it’s not perfect. Whatever the committee concludes and recommends is going to feed into an ongoing and vibrant debate raging across science, so this is going to be an interesting inquiry and one medical research charities are going to be interested in.


Put simply, peer review is a system used by scientists to decide which research results should be published in a scientific journal. The peer review process subjects scientific research papers to independent scrutiny by other qualified scientific experts (peers) before they are made public. Sense About Science has a great beginners guide to peer review “I don’t know what to believe…”.

AMRC members use peer review to select which research to fund. One of our membership criteria is that all AMRC member charities must seek expert advice from external reviewers to help them make decisions about which research grant applications they should fund (more here).  And we monitor this process through a regular audit of member charities; we’re currently in the middle of one.

There are problems with peer review. It is a timely and costly process. It runs the risk of bias, plagiarism etc, and by necessity is limited in its openness and transparency. Check out this Sense About Science working party’s report from a few years back for more detail. However it is an accepted part of academic research, effectively used with a health warning and awareness of its shortcomings.

What is the committee investigating?

The committee has outlined the issues it is likely to examine:

  1. the strengths and weaknesses of peer review as a quality control mechanism for scientists, publishers and the public;
  2. measures to strengthen peer review;
  3. the value and use of peer reviewed science on advancing and testing scientific knowledge;
  4. the value and use of peer reviewed science in informing public debate;
  5. the extent to which peer review varies between scientific disciplines and between countries across the world;
  6. the processes by which reviewers with the requisite skills and knowledge are identified,  in particular as the volume of multi-disciplinary research increases;
  7. the impact of IT and greater use of online resources on the peer review process; and
  8. possible alternatives to peer review.

And is asking for information from scientists whose material has been peer reviewed, those who commission peer reviews and those who carry out peer review by 10 March 2011.

Is this interesting to medical research charities?

Medical research charities both commission and carry out peer review, and employ scientists who are peer reviewed so I suspect we will have a lot to say. Medical research charities have an interesting perspective; they are focused on benefiting patients and share a commitment to funding the highest quality research. Many have a strong patient group allied to them; often including these patients to help make their funding decisions (check out AMRC’s report Natural Ground which looks at how this is working and this routemap which shows how it works in practice). As a result, their priority is to get the best value for money from their investments in research. An evaluative peer review process, gathering evidence to clearly ground their funding decisions is therefore very important to them and their supporters. They are also focused on keeping their backroom operating costs to a minimum, to maximise the funds they have to invest in research, so opportunities to minimise the costs and pull on resources of peer review are a big concern.

Posted in: Policy