The Royal Society of Chemistry organized several activities in celebration of Peer Review Week. As part of this initiative, a panel of experts got together to discuss what they understood by ‘trust’ in the peer review process, and why it mattered. I reached out to the members of this panel to ask them some questions about how the trust in the peer review process can impact the public’s trust in science. Here are Dr. Beatriz Jurado Sánchez’s perspectives on the issue.

 

What is the single biggest challenge that science and scientists face in gaining people’s trust?

In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the gap between the way of communicating between scientists and people with a non-scientific background. Scientists need to make sure that they transmit ideas in an easy manner, so that it is easy to understand but not so simplified that it leads to misleading statements. They also need to make sure that the information is accurate, especially in critical social problems. Peer review plays a critical role also in this.

A good example these days is brought to us by the unfortunate situation with COVID-19 worldwide. Urgent and fast scientific progress is required to find potential solution, with the rise of many publications often posted into a repository without peer review. This results in many reports in newspapers, TV and other media, with hopes for vaccines or effective treatment for such a serious illness. The lack of peer review and understanding among the scientific journalism community makes people believe that a vaccine or effective treatment is ready, but on the next day other scientific authorities alert on the lack of accuracy of such information. This can be due to bad communication of the information, or to the fact that the procedures in a given study may not be accurate; scientists are human beings and, therefore, they also make mistakes, even more so when the time is lacking! If the scientific community tells people that something is true but on the next day it is not, scientists will not gain people’s trust, even though I believe that, in fact, scientists are very well regarded by the general public.

In general, is the peer review process trustworthy? Why or why not?

In my opinion, the peer reviewer process is completely trustworthy. In my experience as a reviewer, author and very recently as an editor, every paper sent to any journal is processed with rigorous scrutiny before publication. First of all, the editorial office checks for potential plagiarism. The article is then sent to the Editor-in-Chief or Associated Editor, who checks for scientific novelty, plagiarism, etc. Most papers (20 to 60 %) are directly rejected in this first process. If successful, the paper is then sent to independent, external reviewers who are also experts in the field. At least two or more reviewers are asked to read the article. They are provided with very clear instructions on how to perform peer review. Also, before accepting, they need to declare any conflict of interest if, for example, they know the authors, work directly on the same topic, etc. It is important to say here that a reviewer does not receive any payment from the journal: they are fully independent. The only payment is the love for science and the opportunity to read about a new development. Scientists also need to support each other to maintain the peer review system going.

Finally, once the report from the reviewers is ready, the editor makes a decision to accept or reject the article, and potentially suggest the authors perform additional experiment or check for inconsistences in the article.

Could the peer review process strengthen public trust in science? How?

I believe so. If the general public knows about the peer review process, and how rigorous it is, we will see an increase in the trust in science. Even though, as I said before, I believe the public already does trust scientists in general.

What is your key advice for early career researchers aiming to produce trustworthy science and genuine science communication?

My first advice is to look for a good mentor/advisor to alert them to the wrong ways to go about this. Also, read a lot of bibliography and references to learn how to plan good experiments, which is key for trustworthy science. In the beginning this can be difficult, but hard work is key for getting good results. Next, they will need to present the results in a scientific way. The first reviewer will be the advisor, but they can also check with some colleagues. After that, they can face the peer review process and learn from the experience. Once they are confident, they can also try to review articles from other authors themselves, with the help of their advisor, just to learn about the peer review process from both sites.

Two important points to take into consideration during this process: firstly, collaboration with scientists from all over the world is good to make short research stays abroad and collaborate with other scientific groups to see science form another perspective. So, in order to broaden your horizons, consider engaging in collaborations. A second important point is to develop the ability to communicate with the general public. This can be done through scientific dissemination activities organized by universities or participation in the European Researchers’ Night and other such events. I advise young scientists to do this since the very first years of their PhD studies. This might seem difficult, but communication with society is crucial to direct research and to solve important problems in a trustworthy manner.

About Nat das Neves Rodrigues Lopes

Nat das Neves Rodrigues Lopes did both her undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in Chemistry, in the UK: “My research explored the interactions between light and matter, something I have always been fascinated by! I did a lot of teaching during my Ph.D. and that’s when I first got interested in communicating my research to audiences beyond my immediate peers. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about public perceptions of science and public trust in scientists. I think it is urgent that we fix the public-expert relationship and I want to do my bit to help that!”
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