The Making of Science

This week is peer-review week, celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. In fact, peer-review is at the core of science. In an analogy, peer-review is to science what a filter is to a swimming pool. A swimming pool without a filter will soon turn into a dirty mess. Without a filter pump, the bacteria and dirt will build up and remain in the pool and the water will soon turn into a breeding ground for diseases.

Science without a peer-review system would soon turn into a mixed collection of studies full of methodological flaws, biased interpretations of results, and outdated and repetitive findings. Ultimately, this would make it impossible to distinguish actual science from pseudoscience. The findings of new studies will be largely unreliable, and medical, technological and societal progress would be slowed down dramatically.

Image Credits: https://bit.ly/2m0B7cl

The peer-review system exists thanks to the hours volunteered by scientists worldwide. The journey of a manuscript from its submission to its publication often lasts several months. The process begins with a group of researchers selecting a scientific journal that would be suitable for their research. There are many journal options available to researchers, some are very prestigious and publication in those would mean that the research will get a lot of visibility including great media coverage and many citations from future studies. The journals Nature and Science are a notable example of prestigious journals – which in scientific jargon means that they have a high impact factor.

To be published in journals with high impact factors, studies need to have important implications in their research field and significantly advance knowledge on the topic discussed. There are many journals of various prestige, though publishing in Science or Nature would usually be one the greatest achievements in a researcher’s career.

Cover picture on one of the issues of Science. Image credits: https://bit.ly/2mjbSBY

Once a study is submitted to a journal, an editor appointed by the scientific publisher of the journal will judge its relevance and impact in its research field and will accordingly accept it for review or reject it straight away. Editors are established and esteemed scientists in the field. If the manuscript is accepted for review, the editor will then invite reviewers to critique the paper, who will scrutinise its methodology, data analysis and discussion of the findings.

Usually, two reviewers are appointed for each manuscript, although their number can vary according to the journal. The journal can adopt either single-blind or double-blind review policy. Single-blind review policy means that the identity of the reviewers is anonymous to the authors of the research, but the authors’ name and affiliation are visible to the reviewers. Double-blind review policy means that the reviewers of the paper won’t get to know the identity of the authors, and the authors won’t get to know the identity of the reviewers. These policies are to ensure an unbiased critique of the paper and a rigorous review.

Cover picture on one of the issues of Nature. Image credits: https://bit.ly/2kT8CwT

Reviewers are scientists from across the world active in the same field of research of the study submitted. Reviewers are presented with four options when reviewing a manuscript: (a) to accept it for publication without any edits required; (b) to recommend minor revisions; (c) to recommend major revisions; and (d) to reject it. The authors of the research are allowed to write their rebuttal to the reviewers’ comments, and generally this process repeats for a few rounds.

All the reviewers and the editor need to endorse the publication of the manuscript for its publication. If the reviewers have conflicting opinions on whether or not to publish the study, then the editor will address the dispute and take a decision.

Once the peer-review process is completed, the manuscript will be proofed by the journal’s team of publishing assistants, and it will then be formatted as a paper and made available online on the publisher’s website.

Papers can be published in an open-access format, meaning that their content will be freely available to anyone who would like to access it, and there would be no exorbitant access fees to pay for the readers. To publish open access, researchers will have to pay a publication fee to the journal, usually over £1,000. Funding for open-access publication is increasingly becoming available to scientists.

This is how the magic of peer-review works and science is made. Sometimes, papers are retracted from publication, as later assessments of the study find that the methods used are unsound or the data fabricated. A nice site that keeps track of retractions is https://retractionwatch.com/

Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/2m3byaE

Author: Valerio Donfrancesco

Valerio Donfrancesco completed a Masters in Conservation Science and Policy at the University of Exeter and is an active researcher in this field

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