Peer review is fundamental to the scientific process

Insights from a Sense about Science peer review workshop

We’ve been supporting Sense about Science’s work on peer review for some time, including sponsoring their ‘Nuts and bolts of peer review’ workshop. To give you an insight into what researchers can gain from these workshops, we asked one attendee to tell us what they thought afterwards.

What’s a ‘Nuts and Bolts of Peer Review’ workshop all about?

By Scott Nicholson

Every day I am pScott Nicholsonresented with claims relating to research. Some are in the free newspaper on my commute to work, some are on my social media timeline while I am having my coffee break, while others are the findings reported in scholarly journals, which help steer the direction of my own research. The question is, how do I know which claims to believe?

After attending an event training scientists to stand up for science in the media, held by the charity Sense about Science, I became a member of the Voice of Young Science network and was intrigued when I saw the advertisement for their ”Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts” workshop. As an early career researcher, being able to make sense of scientific claims is not merely a case of whether or not I should pay extra for an organic apple but is fundamental to my career.

The fundamentals of peer review

The workshop began with publisher, Malavika Legge, describing peer review as the system that is used to assess the quality of scientific research before it is published. She explained that researchers in the same field scrutinise research papers for validity, significance and originality to help editors assess whether they should be published in their journal.

Some group work followed this, in which teams of early career researchers listed the strengths, weaknesses and possible alternatives to peer review. The strengths seemed to focus on the principle of the validation that the scrutiny process provides. However, the weaknesses focused on the practice of peer review, including fraud, reviewer bias and the speed of the process.

During discussion regarding alternatives to peer review; it soon became clear that peer review was fundamental to the scientific process. The next speaker, Professor Sergio Della Sala, did provide an alternative process in which research questions and methods were peer reviewed, rather than completed research papers. He claimed this could reduce the quantity of poor quality research and the incentives to falsify exciting findings.

The reviewer’s role

Professor Martijn Steultjens (of Glasgow Caledonian University) went on to explain the behind-the-scenes aspects, from his perspective as a reviewer. He explained that following submission of the paper to a journal, an editor initially screens it and either rejects the paper or searches for experts to review the work. An editor selects reviewers they have used before or by following a literature search within the field, but often the references of a paper are a good place to find a reviewer. Professor Steultjens said that reviewing a paper takes him half a day and involves a process of trying to get to grips with the backbone and then the detail of the paper. He told the workshop that he then decides to reject or ask the author to make revisions. He has never accepted a paper without revisions and he himself has never had a paper accepted without revisions.

What researchers can gain from getting involved

At the end of the workshop Victoria Murphy, from Sense about Science, highlighted that it was really important for early career researchers to get involved in peer review as it allows them to develop their own research and writing skills, as well as encouraging them to look at their work objectively.

I enjoyed the workshop and left with an understanding that reviewing other researchers’ work will be as important in my career as publishing my own. I will now not get upset if a paper is not accepted without revisions. Most importantly, I now appreciate the importance of a public understanding of peer review, and people that follow me on social media received a 140 character explanation of peer review (sandwiched between the usual stream of research claims).


Scott Nicholson is a final year PhD student researching rheumatoid arthritis at the University of the West of Scotland.