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News and Comment

Peer review matters to the public

8 February 2013

A new guide to peer review is launched in the US today to help the public make sense of research claims.

People are bombarded with claims in newspapers and on the internet that are based on scientific studies. When faced with a headline that suggests an Alzheimer’s drug increases the risk of heart attack or that watching TV is bad for children’s mental health, or that pesticides are causing a decline in bee populations, people have to work out what to believe. Which claims should be taken seriously? Which are ‘scares’?

I Don’t Know What to Believe: Making Sense of Science Stories... explains the peer review process – the system researchers use to assess the validity, significance and originality of papers. It captures experiences and insights from editors and scientists and encourages people to ask “Is it peer reviewed?” when reading science stories.

A similar publication launched in the UK is now used by health workers, librarians, public-health officials, policy-makers, technology companies, safety bodies, popular writers, educators, parenting groups and local government. These are the people who are speaking directly with the public everyday and answering their questions.

Understanding peer review and asking about the status of claims is important to society because it helps people make decisions.

Download the guide here.

This guide has been produced and distributed with sponsorship and help from: the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Physics, BioMed Central, Elsevier, International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers, National Press Foundation, Nature Publishing Group, Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers, Public Library of Science, Taylor & Francis Group, Wolters Kluwer and Wiley.



Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science: “We have to establish an understanding that the status of research findings is as important as the findings themselves. This understanding has the capacity to improve the decisions we make across all of society.”

Dr Peter R. Jutro, Deputy Director for Science and Policy, National Homeland Security Research Center, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Sound science is essential to the formulation of sound public policy; a robust peer review process is what helps ensure the quality of science the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses for decision making. Efforts that help the public recognize the role of peer review and insist on its use inevitably benefit public health and the environment."

Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief and Senior VP, Scientific American: "Science is the engine of human innovation and our advances rely on trustworthy evidence. Peer review is vital to knowing what to trust."

Bob Meyers, President & COO, National Press Foundation:  “Evidence-based journalism needs evidence-based science”

Dr Virginia Barbour, Medicine Editorial Director, Public Library of Science and Chair, Committee on Publication Ethics: “Peer review is an important part of the scientific process, and one indicator that can help readers distinguish in the mass of science they hear reported every day between what they can have confidence in and what they should treat with more caution. Furthermore, understanding how peer review works gives an insight into how science itself is done: I Don’t Know What to Believe bridges a crucial gap in understanding between scientists and the public.”

Dr Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director, National Center for Science Education (NCSE): “Kids! Parents! Teachers! The secret of science can be yours! By reading Sense about Science’s invaluable guide “I Don’t Know What to Believe,” you’ll learn what peer review is, why scientists use it, and how it makes science such a powerful tool! A must for anyone whose life is touched by science—oh, wait. That’s everyone.”

David Ruth, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, Elsevier: “Working closely with the patient groups, policymakers, scientists and publishers, Sense About Science has created a guide to peer review that is going to be very useful for anyone, expert or not, trying to evaluate scientific research.” 

Susan King, Senior Vice President, Journals Publishing Group, ACS Publications and Chair of the Association of American Publishers’ Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division Executive Committee: “In a world where unfiltered news and information are everywhere, people are seeking a roadmap to distinguish what is sound, fact-based content. This guide offers tools to help serve that need. What separates true scientific research from speculation, opinion and hype is peer review, which requires investment by publishers and involvement by the scientific community.  The guide offers a fundamental understanding of this intensive process and its critical role in advancing knowledge in our society.”

Patrick Kelly, VP and Director Journal Publishing, Life Sciences, John Wiley & Sons:  “We believe that peer review is one of the bedrocks of scientific publishing. It is extremely important to have impartial, independent reviewers establish the credibility and originality of research. Wiley has always taken seriously its investment in and management of an extensive peer review infrastructure.”

Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature: “Authors of Nature papers frequently comment that assessment by their peers has strengthened their publications, and I can testify to that too. This guide is invaluable in explaining how peer review contributes to the health of science.”

Deborah Kahn, Publishing Director, BioMed Central: “The ultimate purpose of all scientific endeavour should be for the public good, but how can the public trust the results of scientific research? Peer review plays a crucial role in informing public judgement  through improving the quality and reliability of scientific output. The process of review and feedback is key in determining if science is robust and conducted in an appropriate manner. BioMed Central  warmly welcomes the launch of the US version of the public guide to peer review“I Don’t Know What to Believe…” as an important step towards helping the public make sense of science.”

Leila Mills, Publishing Manager for Journal Development Team at Taylor & Francis: “As the wealth of accessible scientific content continues to grow, peer review is more relevant than ever as the system for evaluating the quality and validity of scholarly research. By providing key information about the process of peer review and the important role it plays, Sense About Science’s initiative will help enable the public to identify content they can trust, instilling confidence in science communication”.

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