Would You Want Your Best Ideas Openly Scrutinized? Scientists Do

Peer review is regarded by many as an indispensable, if sometimes unwieldy, cog in the science machine. It's what makes science 'go'. But to non-scientists it can seem a bizarre process.

Would you want your most cherished ideas openly criticised by your colleagues and competitors?

Scientists do. In fact, it's an essential part of the scientific method. But that still doesn't make it nice.

Peer review is regarded by many as an indispensable, if sometimes unwieldy, cog in the science machine. It's what makes science 'go'. But to non-scientists it can seem a bizarre process.

Why? Because it means giving the game away. Essentially, what happens is that scientists invite potential competitors to wade about in their best scientific ideas, searching for difficulties and rooting out flaws within. The people they are trying to beat are up to their armpits in their precious, hard-earned data.

This kind of thing just doesn't happen in many other professions. Imagine mobile phone companies demanding full access to each other's boardrooms. Imagine competing supermarkets inviting each other to pore over business plans, and offer 'helpful' criticism.

Of course, peer review for research is not quite as bonkers as this. But you get the general idea. And scientists have to do this on a routine basis. Science works by having new theories, ideas, and findings put through the wringer. To be tested, debated, and tested again. It sounds uncomfortable, and it often is. The process is not without its faults.

Even with checks in place, the peer review process can still be inefficient and sometimes even subverted for ulterior motives, whether deliberately or not. Scientists are only human, after all. Much recent discussion revolves around how peer review could be improved, or in some circumstances, done away with altogether. But it's currently the best way of separating the most promising from the mundane, the flawed from the real - of helping the best science shine through.

Worldwide Cancer Research funds around 50 new research projects every year - it's a good amount, but we'd like to fund more. As usual it comes down to cold hard cash. In the mean time our peer review process ensures we can sift out the best research applications to fund.

Effective peer review takes a lot of time and effort. For our charity, a single grant application can take as long as 6 months to make it through our 'gold-standard' peer review process set by the AMRC.

Because our remit is so broad (funding applications from any and every country) we have a particularly large "Dragons' Den" of stellar scientists to review our applications. If you think the likes of Duncan Bannatyne and Deborah Meaden are a tough crowd, imagine pitching to 24 of the top science brains in Europe, all out to decide whether your idea is worth that precious funding. Only the very best are then sent out for further scrutinising by more expert scientists from around the world.

Swap the starkly-lit warehouse for a modest hotel meeting room in Edinburgh, imagine the pitches made in writing instead of person, and you begin to get the idea.

Admittedly most scientists don't look quite so fearsome as the Dragons. But they are just as deadly serious when it comes down to business. They even ask virtually the same questions. Is this research new? Is it needed? Is anyone else doing it? Is the applicant able to do what they say they will, that is, are they properly skilled-up? Are they asking for the right amount of money? And perhaps most importantly, could this research really make a difference?

But unlike the real Dragons, scientific peer-reviewers don't stand to financially gain from all the review work they put in, it is all done for free. The scientist must often perform these duties over and above their own day-to-day research activities, and that can mean a lot of late nights.

So what's it like to have your work scrutinised in such agonising detail? During my time in research I remember waiting for reviewer comments with bated breath. Did the reviewer agree that this research was as exciting, and potentially ground breaking as I did? A review can make or break your chances of funding. A 'good' review meant celebrations. A 'bad' review commiserations and back to the drawing board.

I might not have always agreed with the reviewers' points, sometimes I found them downright infuriating. But after I'd calmed down, I often reluctantly agreed that the points raised were valid, and necessary. Ultimately, they made me a better scientist.

"In general, studies are almost always improved by critical input by other scientists." Says Paul Coffer, Professor of Cell Biology at UMC Utrecht and Worldwide Cancer Research Scientific Committee member. "Peer-review is not just important, it is essential. Without it we would have the scientific literature overflowing with poorly performed research and uninterpretable clinical trials. A solid peer-review system allows us to see the wood from the trees and moves science forward."

And that's just the point. Scientists may well be working in competition, they may even like to get a sneaky peek at others' ideas - and reviewing can give an excellent opportunity to do just that. But ultimately everyone's working towards the same goal- to improve science, to drive knowledge forward and, in the case of cancer research, to improve lives.

So it turns out the Dragons might not be so scary after all.

This article first appeared on Worldwide Cancer Resarch's blog.


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