Peer review: the quality control of science

Could we scientists do a better job of reviewing manuscripts to catch papers with fabricated data or plagiarized text?  Is this the duty of peer-reviewers? Or should the journals be primarily responsible for discovering research misconduct?

I know we are all very busy and we all have so many things to read but, as the American Chemical Society stated, “every scientist has an obligation to do a fair share of reviewing (http://pubs.acs.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1218054468605/ethics.pdf).

The peer-reviewing system is an old system that has been keeping the quality of publications for many centuries. It all started in the 1600s, when the secretary of the Royal Society of London had the idea of asking other scientists to check the quality of the manuscripts prior to publication in the Society’s journal.

Obviously, editors and staff of peer-reviewed journals also play a big role on quality control of manuscripts. I am sure I am not the only one out there who received manuscripts for revision that clearly the authors didn’t do a good job proofreading and polishing the manuscript. ‘Hey, Mr. Editor, this manuscript should go back to the authors, send me back when it reads better!’, I wrote the editor.

When I think of the cases of prolific and well-known scientists publishing papers based on fake and fabricated data, I wonder if a good and critical reviewer could have spotted the problem. The other day we were discussing in our research ethics class if the review process should be blind. Some of the people in class preferred to know who the authors are but some argued that it should be totally anonymous so there is no bias. Would you be less critical if you review a manuscript from researcher from prestigious university or institution? How about reviewing the paper of your friend from grad school? What if you were aware that one of the authors had been found guilty of research misconduct in the past?  Would any of these factors change how you reviewed a paper? Should they?

Of course, the peer review system is far from perfect. Reviewers don’t have access to the raw data.  Some reviewers may take advantage of data not yet published for their personal gain or manuscripts being rejected because the reviewer failed to recognize the breakthrough idea or reviewers who deliberately rejected the manuscript for personal interest. Still, with all the flaws, the peer review system is the best way to ensure rigorous science.

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