The peer review process is increasingly strained by the rapid changes in the research landscape, both by the tension between publishing in a journal and the need to patent research findings and in allowing more risky research through the peer review gateway.
A report published by the European Science Foundation (ESF) has showcased a number of options that could lead to a greater openness to innovative research.
The report, “Peer review: its present and future states”, draws on ideas from an international conference in Prague in October 2006, reflecting concerns on the shortcomings of peer review and outlining some possible means of dealing with them.
That conference brought together key representatives from scientific publishing, national and international funding bodies and research institutes. It was organised by the Czech Science Foundation, the European Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCS) and the ESF.
A central theme of the report is that the current peer review system is not adequate for assess the most pioneering research proposals. John O’Reilly, former Chief Executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), now Vice Chancellor of Cranfield University, said traditional peer review is too risk averse. He called for ways to encourage pioneering research that is high risk, but high impact if successful.
The conference called for methods of assessing innovative research to be embedded in the peer review system. One possible approach was suggested by He Minghong from the National Natural Science Foundation, China. His foundation encourages reviewers and programme managers to single out risky project proposals, which are then funded under stricter conditions. Their duration is shorter, their budget smaller and they are more closely monitored.
The challenge of increasing the efficiency of the peer review process is shared by all research organisations, with the increasing focus on competitive research funding adding to the pressure on referees and on research funding agencies.
Peer review also represents a huge overhead, and representatives from organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the US explained how they are working to make the review cycle more effective. One example is the implementation of remote evaluation, using virtual review panels in teleconferences and online tools, to access applications remotely.
Toni Scarpa, from the US National Institute of Health described the use of knowledge management software tools to identify reviewers and assign applications to them.
The European Commission representative, Graham Stroud, outlined the European Commission’s plan to use remote evaluation within the 7th Framework Programme, to minimise the length of time scientists have to spend in Brussels. This will also help efforts to further develop the pool of referees.
Finding and retaining good reviewers have becoming increasingly difficult, and the report stresses the need for better European cooperation in peer review process