The Peer Review Process

We have been working hard writing, editing, and formatting portions of the work you have been reading about over the last few months. Why? Because we will be submitting two manuscripts soon for consideration to be published in a scientific journal.

This is a great time to briefly talk about the peer review process and why it is so important.

Why is Peer Review so Important?

Figure 1:

Figure 1: The peer review process. Credit

To many, myself included, reading a beautifully worded newspaper summary or looking at a conceptual diagram is more appealing that reading through a technical 16 page scientific paper.

But how do you know that the information summarized on your Facebook newsfeed is a scientific finding and not just an untrue ramble? The answer usually lies in that citation tucked away at the bottom of an image or quoted in a blog post.

That citation usually means it went through a peer review process.

Okay, what is Peer Review?

Peer review is a review of scientific material by the peers in that field (just like it sounds!). It is a rigorous, and fairly standardized, process defined by the journal you hope to publish in.

Here are the general steps (as depicted in Figure 1). First, the researcher(s) conduct their experiment or computations using the scientific method of formulating a hypothesis then proceeding to test that hypothesis using statistics, etc.. Next, those results, methodologies, and implications are written concisely, providing enough information that a fellow researcher could try that analysis themselves!

PeerReview

To some, the peer review process can feel like going to battle, but it is necessary to critically assess the validity of new information.

From here, that manuscript will be submitted to the journal of choice for peer review. Before (and if) that hard work can be accepted by the scientific community (and everyone else!), an average of 2-3 experts in that subject (but not involved whatsoever with the work) will read and review the manuscript.

A good peer reviewer will critique and evaluate everything from the method used to the interpretation of the results to even the style of writing.

Acceptance is not guaranteed! Most journals give a few choices to a peer review: accept as is, accept with major revisions, accept with minor revisions, reject. If revisions are required, which is fairly common, that researcher is given 1-2 months to make the corrections and/or suggestions.

The peer review process is not a proof-reading, rather meant to critically review if a result is scientifically valid. If a paper is accepted, you can be assured that an expert read and scrutinized that work 1-2 times before giving it a thumbs up.

This whole process can take weeks to months to even years depending on the degree of revisions needed! But the bottom line is that a scientific work that goes through this rigorous peer review is a defensible, new scientific finding.

So the next time you read a cool theory, or seem a neat infographic, search for that citation. If you do not see one, you’ll have to ask yourself: is this a defensible result or just a wild theory?

 

Kari Pohl

About Kari Pohl

I am a post-doctoral researcher at NOAA and the University of Maryland (Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point Laboratory). My work investigates how climate variability and extremes affect the diverse ecosystems in Chesapeake Bay. I received a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island (2014) and received a B.S. in Environmental Science and a B.A. in Chemistry from Roger Williams University (2009). When I am not busy being a scientist, my hobbies include running, watching (and often yelling at) the Boston Bruins, and taking photos of my cat.
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