From the FNS Research Oracle-Prof Theophilus Davies corner

Professor Theo Davies

Is the veracity of the peer review process in doubt?

Peer review is a well-established process used to assess the quality and suitability of a manuscript before it is published. Independent experts in the relevant field of research assess submitted manuscripts for originality, validity, and significance, to help editors determine whether a manuscript should be published in their journal.

Despite several criticisms that have been levied regarding its integrity, peer review is still the only widely accepted method for vetting research quality; and has been used successfully with relatively minor changes for over 350 years. Up till today, most of the research community still believes peer review is the best form of scientific evaluation.

There are five main types of peer review: Single-blind review; Double-blind review; Triple-blind review; Collaborative review and Open review; each type defined as the name implies – the main difference between them being the extent to which the authors, reviewers, and editors know each other’s identities.

Most reviewers and authors appear to favour the double-blind system, where the identity of both the author and the reviewer is kept hidden. The reason for the popularity of this form of peer review is that if the authors’ identity is unknown to the reviewer, it will prevent the reviewer from forming any bias (e.g., prejudice against a competitor in the field). But the question of whether an author’s identity can be truly anonymised, in many cases, remains debatable. How can anonymity be guaranteed in the case of a well-known author in a small field like ours (cf., Medical Geology)?

Other disadvantages of the peer review system include:

(i) Other Forms of Reviewer Bias – exemplified by the possibility that an excellent paper by a new researcher may be declined, while an objectively lower-quality submission by an established researcher would be accepted.

(ii) Delays in publication – whereby the thoroughness of the peer review process can lead to significant delays in publishing time. Research that was current at the time of submission may not be as current by the time it’s published. There is also high risk of publication bias, where journals are more likely to readily publish studies with positive findings than studies with negative findings.

(iii) Risk of human error – By its very nature, peer review carries a risk of human error. In particular, falsification often cannot be detected, given that reviewers would have to replicate entire experiments to ensure the validity of results.

So, we have established that peer review is not a flawless process. However, it is likely to remain central to science and journals because there is no obvious alternative, and scientists and editors have a continuing belief in peer review. How odd that science should be rooted in belief?


Prof. T.C. Davies