Summary

Peer review in scholarly publishing, in one form or another, has always been regarded as crucial to the reputation and reliability of scientific research. In recent years there have been an increasing number of reports and articles assessing the current state of peer review. In view of the importance of evidence-based scientific information to government, it seemed appropriate to undertake a detailed examination of the current peer-review system as used in scientific publications. Both to see whether it is operating effectively and to shine light on new and innovative approaches. We also explored some of the broader issues around research impact, publication ethics and research integrity.

We found that despite the many criticisms and the little solid evidence on the efficacy of pre-publication editorial peer review, it is considered by many as important and not something that can be dispensed with. There are, however, many ways in which current pre-publication peer-review practices can and should be improved and optimised, although we recognise that different types of peer review are suitable to different disciplines and research communities. Innovative approaches—such as the use of pre-print servers, open peer review, increased transparency and online repository-style journals—should be explored by publishers, in consultation with their journals and taking into account the requirements of their research communities. Some of these new approaches may help to reduce the necessary burden on researchers, and also help accelerate the pace of publication of research. We encourage greater recognition of the work carried out by reviewers, by both publishers and employers. All publishers need to have in place systems for recording and acknowledging the contribution of those involved in peer review.

Publishers also have a responsibility to ensure that the people involved in the peer-review process are adequately trained for the role that they play. Training for editors, authors and reviewers varies across the publishing sector and across different research institutions. We encourage publishers to work together to develop standards—which could be applied across the industry—to ensure that all editors, whether staff or academic, are fully equipped for the job that they do. Furthermore, we consider that all early-career researchers should be given the option for training in peer review; responsibility for this lies primarily with the funders of research.

Funders of research have an interest in ensuring that the work they fund is both scientifically sound and reproducible. We consider that it should be a fundamental aim of the peer-review process that all publications are scientifically sound. Reproducibility should be the gold standard that all peer reviewers and editors aim for when assessing whether a manuscript has supplied sufficient information to allow others to repeat and build on the experiments. As such, the presumption must be that, unless there is a strong reason otherwise, data should be fully disclosed and made publicly available. In line with this principle, data associated with all publicly funded research should, where possible, be made widely and freely available. The work of researchers who expend time and effort adding value to their data, to make it usable by others, should be acknowledged and encouraged.

While pre-publication peer review (the first records of which date back to the 17th century) continues to play an important role in ensuring that the scientific record is sound, the growth of post-publication peer review and commentary represents an enormous opportunity for experimentation with new media and social networking tools. Online communications allow the widespread sharing of links to articles, ensuring that interesting research is spread across the world, facilitating rapid commentary and review by the global audience. They also have a valuable role to play in alerting the community to potential deficiencies and problems with published work. We encourage the prudent use of online tools for post-publication review and commentary as a means of supplementing pre- publication review.

On the subject of impact, it was clear to us that the publication of peer-reviewed articles, particularly those that are published in journals with high Impact Factors, has a direct effect on the careers of researchers and the reputations of research institutions. Assessing the impact or perceived importance of research before it is published requires subjective judgement. We therefore have concerns about the use of journal Impact Factor as a proxy measure for the quality of individual articles. While we have been assured by research funders that they do not use this as a proxy measure for the quality of research or of individual articles, representatives of research institutions have suggested that publication in a high-impact journal is still an important consideration when assessing individuals for career progression. We consider that research institutions should be cautious about this approach as there is an element of chance in getting articles accepted in such journals. We have heard in the course of this inquiry that there is no substitute for reading the article itself in assessing the worth of a piece of research.

Finally, we found that the integrity of the peer-review process can only ever be as robust as the integrity of the people involved. Ethical and scientific misconduct—such as in the Wakefield case—damages peer review and science as a whole. Although it is not the role of peer review to police research integrity and identify fraud or misconduct, it does, on occasion, identify suspicious cases. While there is guidance in place for journal editors when ethical misconduct is suspected, we found the general oversight of research integrity in the UK to be unsatisfactory. We note that the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group report recently made sensible recommendations about the way forward for research integrity in the UK, which have not been adopted. We recommend that the Government revisit the recommendation that the UK should have an oversight body for research integrity that provides “advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders”, across all disciplines. Furthermore, while employers must take responsibility for the integrity of their employees’ research, we recommend that there be an external regulator overseeing research integrity. We also recommend that all UK research institutions have a specific member of staff leading on research integrity.