Subscribe to Newsletter
Techniques & Tools

Critical, Constructive or Crass?

Upon completion of research, scientists typically want to communicate their findings to the scientific community, with the greater goal of driving science forward. There is no doubt that publication in peer-reviewed journals is currently the most acceptable way of sharing the outcome of scientific investigation. No surprise then that a great variety of journals, with high, medium or low impact factor, have jumped to the demand, offering the opportunity to present their work to audiences in the same niche or broad field.

The journals’ editors, who essentially decide whether the work deserves publication or not, must handle all manuscripts at some point. Initially, the task of accepting or rejecting was solely the role of the editors-in-chief or editorial committees. But the sheer volumes of manuscripts flying around our increasingly electronic and interconnected world have demanded the need for hordes of so-called referees or reviewers. Reviewers evaluate manuscripts and provide a report that notes weak points or suggests improvements, generally maintaining standards of quality and reliability. The role is advisory and the editor has no obligation to accept the opinion of the referee, though it is often used and adapted. Peer reviewers are qualified experts of the same or relevant scientific field – a valuable resource indeed.

But recruiting referees is a difficult task, as they offer their time and expertise on a voluntary basis. Sometimes they are suggested by the authors, but with restrictions; they should typically not be from the same university, country, research team, and so on. In the case of any conflict of interest, editors are informed.

The peer review process is usually anonymous (single-blind review), where the names of the reviewers are hidden from the author. In some cases, both the reviewer and the author remain anonymous, which further ensures fair judgment (double-blind review). Open reviews are rare, but possible.

Unfortunately, the system is often biased, unjustified, incomplete – and sometimes plain insulting, unfair, ignorant, or incorrect.

The peer review process should promote integrity in research publications. Unfortunately, the system is often biased, unjustified, incomplete – and sometimes plain insulting, unfair, ignorant, or incorrect. I suspect that most scientists have faced, at some time, a criticism that was not scientifically accurate. I recall one reviewer who wondered if QuEChERS was referring to a German car! Irony, ignorance, arrogance – or all of the above?

And so here is my question: can peer reviewing be harmonized or standardized by standards organizations? Manuscript reviewing is based on the volunteer work of scientists who spend time and effort giving editors advice and also helping authors to improve the presentation of their work – and this is undoubtedly highly appreciated. But harmonized procedures are essential when it comes to offering unbiased judgment. Are all parties – journal editors, authors and referees – ready to work together to aim for such standardization?

For example, International Standards exist in the food industry that set out the requirements to harmonize existing methods through an internationally recognized system to ensure that food is safe for the consumer. International Standards guarantee that products and services are safe, reliable and of good quality. They are developed using a consensus-based approach and comments from all experts are taken into account. Could all publishers be in a consensus and guarantee the same degree of integrity and reliability for the authors?

The Committee on Publication Ethics, which is a forum for editors and publishers of peer reviewed journals that provides advice on all aspects of publication ethics, helps steer us in the right direction, but still is not enough. In my view, the reputation of a scientist alone is not sufficient to prove integrity of judgment.

Perhaps there is long way to go before all parties involved can agree upon standards of expected ethical behavior in the world of publishing. Clearly, we cannot apply standards as strictly as other more rigorous ISO systems, but I do believe the principles could and should be adapted and adjusted to fit the needs of a scientific community that wants to share the fruits of its labor.

Receive content, products, events as well as relevant industry updates from The Analytical Scientist and its sponsors.
Stay up to date with our other newsletters and sponsors information, tailored specifically to the fields you are interested in

When you click “Subscribe” we will email you a link, which you must click to verify the email address above and activate your subscription. If you do not receive this email, please contact us at [email protected].
If you wish to unsubscribe, you can update your preferences at any point.

About the Author
Victoria Samanidou

Victoria Samanidou is based at the Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece.

Register to The Analytical Scientist

Register to access our FREE online portfolio, request the magazine in print and manage your preferences.

You will benefit from:
  • Unlimited access to ALL articles
  • News, interviews & opinions from leading industry experts
  • Receive print (and PDF) copies of The Analytical Scientist magazine