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30. October 2006 17:04

Peer review 'may stifle novel approaches’, concludes international conference

Experts have expressed fears that peer review, the internationally accepted form of scientific critique, may no longer be receptive to the novel approaches that lead to valuable scientific advances.

Speaking at an international conference organised jointly by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the Czech Science Foundation (Grantová agentura České republiky, GA ČR), and the European Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCs), John O’Reilly, the chief executive of the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) said: “The current system of peer review can at times be considered ‘tyrannical’ in its approach and it needs to evolve.”

Over the course of the two-day event, held October 12 -13, 2006, some 150 experts from the European scientific community and institutions throughout the world (including China, Japan and Korea,) convened to discuss the growing need for access to the best quality expert reviewers and the provision of suitable incentives for these scientists, including financial remuneration.

The president of the ESF, Ian Halliday, suggested that the future of European peer review lies in the creation of international expert review panels. He concluded that many research areas would benefit from a common pool of international referees.

“If you look at the US National Science Foundation [NSF] and take the example of laser physics, the experts within the field from across the whole continent are divided into several specialised expert panels. If we could do this in Europe, it would add value to the division of scientific expertise,” he said.

It was agreed that overall, peer review remains the best method of judging scientific quality both in research proposals and publications, but that its inherent subjectivity and variability can cause problems.

To aid harmonisation, the creation of guidelines and methods of best practice to be shared throughout the research community was suggested. A document already produced by Quality Assurance Netherlands Universities (QANU) setting standard evaluation protocol for public research organisations was held up as an example of such guidelines.

Concluding remarks put a great deal of focus on the opportunities that Europe has to work together. Halliday stressed that peer review could be strengthened by the provision of a platform for European countries to share scientific expertise.

“I can see a case now for all of the bids within one scientific field from across the whole of Europe being dealt with in one place at one time,” he said. “This way we could share European expertise but the money would remain national. I think that this would be a suitable alternative to current European schemes which try to share common European funding.”

When the conference concluded, Halliday spoke about the potential for the ESF to coordinate the new European panels that he proposed. “This is the kind of deal that we are in the position to set up to run,” he said.

Mark Suskin from NSF said that the US scientific community wanted to work with the whole of Europe and that fragmentation often made that difficult. “At the moment, I don’t think that Europe is drawing on the full spectrum of resources that it has all at once. Sometimes, working on a European level would be useful,” he said.

For the ESF, this conference plays a key role in direct engagement with their Member Organisations. This will continue in the form of a Member Organisation Forum on peer review, to which members have already been invited to participate and contribute. Further workshops and a final meeting will take place in 2007 to implement the findings of this ongoing activity.

Related links

1. Peer review conference homepage

2. Qanu report

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