Editorial: Research Review 2016
Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor
Peer Review: The Essential Element of Science
The acquisition of knowledge through research is the cornerstone of science and central to this is the peer review process.
Peer review is a process of quality control that is applied at several stages during the evolution of a research project. At the developmental stage peer review is often a component of the ethical review process. This provides important oversight with respect to the potential validity and value of a study and may also serve to identify potential harms.
Once a project has been formulated and has progressed through the detailed planning phase – which itself may involve peer review – the next step is the securing of adequate funding. This is undoubtedly a highly competitive process as sources of funding are limited and it is well recognised that for virtually all funding bodies, numbers of applications are well in excess of available resources.
Typically applications for research funds are assessed by a review panel consisting of established scientists whose areas of expertise are within the same broad fields as the applications being assessed. It is acknowledged that the breadth of research activity often exceeds the specialist knowledge of a review panel and for that reason the assistance of independent referees is usually required. While the members of the review panel are able to evaluate the broad scientific principles, as well as the validity of methodology and likely outcome of any study, they may not possess the expertise to evaluate the relevance and importance of a study in the context of parallel research activities and it is here that the role of the referee is a essential component of the review process. In general, comments from several referees are elicited for each grant application, with referees being identified by both the grant applicants and the members of the review panel. Not only must referees possess specific expertise to allow the objective assessment of the scientific value of a grant application, they must also be free of any conflict of interest with respect to the applicants and the research project itself.
Following receipt of the referees reports the merits of each application are discussed by the review panel and a ranking system is applied utilising a scoring system which evaluates novelty of the project scientific method, feasibility, potential outcomes and importance of results. Individual scores are assigned to each application by panel members blinded to the scoring of their colleagues and a composite score is derived according to pre-determined criteria. Applications are then ranked and funding is recommended in accordance with available resources.
During the progress of the research project peer review may be involved in the assessment of progress reports. These are usually required for grants that extend beyond one year or if funding is contingent upon demonstrated progress.
Once the project is completed successfully the publication of findings usually follows and here peer review is at the fore. All reputable journals utilise independent review for the evaluation of manuscripts and while the Editor makes the final decision regarding the acceptability of a manuscript for publication, this decision is heavily influenced by the opinions of (usually) two or more referees commissioned to review the submitted manuscript. While providing guidance for Editors, the comments of the referees often include recommendations that would serve to strengthen the study. This may consist of suggestions for further research work, a reworking of the data or a reassessment of the discussion and conclusions - any of which would enhance the findings presented in the document and improve the impact of the published article.
Peer review has as its centre quality assurance and is necessary to ensure that scarce funding resources are not wasted on invalid methodologies or projects that simply repeat the work of others. Scientists have expectations that published research as undergone peer-review at several points during its evaluation with a focus on originality, methodology scientific relevance and feasibility (Plos One 7(9) e456054, 2012). Applying this, it is clear that many projects do not measure up, as reputable journals report rejection rates of greater than 50%. The Lancet introduced statistical review as a secondary phase of its peer review process and found that, on the basis of statistical error alone, 54% of papers were found to be unacceptable for publication and interestingly these manuscripts often contained problems associated with analysis and design (Lancet 340 (8811) 100, 1992). It has been noted that problems associated with research methodology are the most common reason for manuscripts to be rejected for publication (Aust NZ J Public Health 34(1) 3, 2010). The reject of a manuscript represents a failure at several levels. For this reason peer review of grant applications is of paramount importance, so that potential difficulties may be identified from the outset.
Peer review not only assists researchers, but also acts as a watchdog for the community. Issues relating to scientific misconduct and fabrication of results, while not prevalent, require constant vigilance. It has been noted that misconduct is more likely in cultures and situations where mutual criticism is hampered. For this reason transparent communication amongst researchers and peer control is considered an essential element of scientific self-correction (Plos One 10 (6) e0127556, 2015).
Research For Life has always employed peer-review and the requirement for on-going progress reports, in the assessment of applications for research funding. Such processes are considered the expected norm by the research community and serve to give confidence that funding is applied to projects with a strong likelihood of producing meaningful results.
Professor Brett Delahunt, Editor
Research Advisory Committee Membership
Professor Brett Delahunt (Chair)
Dr David Ackerley
Dr Peter Bethwaite
Associate Professor Duncan C Galletly
Dr Rebecca Grainger
Professor Anne La Flamme
Professor Graham Le Gros
Professor John H Miller