A celebration of peer review

Cancer

Peer review is an incredibly important part of how we maintain the excellence of the research we fund. As part of Peer Review Week, we are very proud to celebrate the essential role our research community play in this process. Here we chat to Professor Marcus Munafò – a member of one of our funding committees – to find out what is involved, what challenges remain and why inclusion is so important for the process…

Tell us a little bit about your academic background and what it is you get out of being a reviewer on our Prevention and Population Research Committee (PPRC).

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a very varied career – my undergraduate degree was in philosophy and experimental psychology, and my MSc and PhD was in applied and health psychology.

As a postdoc I worked in a number of different departments – public health and primary care, clinical pharmacology, and psychiatry. I’m now based in a psychology department, but I’m also part of an epidemiology unit. I’ve tried to learn from all the disciplines I’ve worked with along the way and try to bring that broad perspective to PPRC.

What is most rewarding about grant review and being part of the decision-making process for awarding grants, is that it really matters – to the individuals who are applying, but also to the field and the sector. So it’s a considerable responsibility, but all the more rewarding for that. You get to see the latest ideas from a range of fields and deliberate with other colleagues on the Committee about the various strengths and weaknesses of the different proposals. It’s certainly hard work, but very fulfilling.

Peer review can be a challenging and time-consuming process for scientists to engage in… so why do you think it is important to continue to make sure it remains a key part of how research functions?

Peer review is certainly not perfect, but it remains the main way of ensuring that funded research is high quality and likely to provide important insights. I think it’s important to distinguish between the peer review processes for grants and journal articles – although they share many similarities, there are important differences to. Principally, grant review happens before the research has been done, whereas – in most cases – peer review of journal articles happens after the research has been done.

Grant peer review is therefore, in a sense, cleaner – it focuses on the importance of the research question, and the robustness of the results. Journal peer review can potentially be biased, consciously or unconsciously, by whether the results are perceived as “interesting”. This is one reason why journal submission formats like Registered Reports – where a study is reviewed at a journal before any data have been collected – are potentially valuable and could improve research quality. We can always improve peer review!

Peer Review Week this year is dedicated to the theme “identity in peer review” – why it is important for a range of people to be included in peer review?

One thing I learned from working across different disciplines throughout my career is that every discipline does some things very well, and every discipline can also learn from others. So, bringing those different perspectives is important to ensure that these different strengths are brought to bear.

By extension, involving a wider range of people in peer review – such as those with lived experience – will ensure that research that is funded is relevant to real people in the real world.

For both publishing and funders, a fair amount of criticism is levelled at peer review… what do you see as the biggest challenges – and what would you like to see changing for the process?

As I mentioned, I think peer review for funders vs journals is fundamentally different in one or two important ways. Focusing on the importance of the research question and the robustness of the methodology is, in my opinion, the best way to go. There are efforts underway to incorporate this approach into journal peer review more widely, including a pilot we’ll be running with Cancer Research UK – called Registered Reports Funding Partnerships – which bring together funder and journal peer review. It offers successful grant awardees the option to immediately submit a Registered Report to a journal.

This kind of innovation will have to be evaluated, to see how it is received by the community and also whether it improves efficiency and quality, and reduces bias. However, it’s exciting that this sort of innovation is happening, and that funders and publishers are looking at ways they can work together more closely.

Peer Review Week is a community-led yearly global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The event brings together individuals, institutions, and organisations committed to sharing the central message that good peer review, whatever shape or form it might take, is critical to science.

This year, Peer Review Week is dedicated to the theme “Identity in Peer Review” and aims to encourage a more critical evaluation of the interplay between personal, professional and cultural identity.

Marcus is Professor of Biological Psychology and MRC Investigator at the University of Bristol. He has a long standing interest in the factors that influence research quality, and in 2019 co-founded the UK Reproducibility Network (www.ukrn.org).

He is currently Editor-in-Chief of Nicotine and Tobacco Research, and a member of the Cancer Research UK Population and Prevention Research Committee.

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