Category: Peer review

This morning I sat down with my 14 year old son and asked him what area of science caught his interest especially.  He answered “the future of space exploration”. We carried out a search on the Web of Science for “future + space + exploration”, and the fifth article returned was “Comparing future options for human space flight” by Sherwood Brent (Acta Astronautica 69 346-353, 2011).  We downloaded the article and he read it.  When asked, he said the paper was understandable and interesting – he was glad that he’d read it, and wanted to know where he could read more stuff like this. There’s a myth that only people who have ready access to peer review papers have any real need or desire to read them, and it’s a pernicious myth. George Monbiot stirred up the debate on access to scientific publications recently in his Guardian piece “Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist“.  In response, Kent Anderson – a long-time publisher and editor of scientific journals – set up this straw scenario, using it to justify limited access to journal publications:

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Exploring new ideas, messing around with disciplinary boundaries, making unusual and innovative connections – surely that’s what cutting edge research is supposed to be about these days?  Certainly it’s something many researchers aspire to – at least on those grant proposals where “interdisciplinary”, “Multidisciplinary” and even “transdisciplinary” are essential buzz-words.  But let me tell you, it can make a journal editor’s life a misery. Take this example:  In my role as coordinating editor of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research I get more than my fair share of papers with titles something like this dropping into my in-box:  “A novel, green approach to synthesizing really fancy nanoparticles using extract of lesser spotted purple wort”. It’s a fictitious title, but not that far removed from some of the papers I receive. It sounds really interesting in principle – combining as it does aspects of chemistry, materials science, botany, and probably half a dozen other disciplines, to arrive at a biological route to manufacturing nanoparticles that have probably previously only been synthesized through some messy route using buckets of nasty chemicals. But here’s the snag when you get to peer review – you need peers to review the research.  And inevitably there are only a handful of people in the whole world who have done similar research – and they are usually all co-authors on the paper you are trying to get reviewed! So as a journal editor you have a problem – who on earth do you get to review the work before publication? I can’t be alone in struggling with this.  Papers published within clear-cut disciplines usually have a sizable pool of peers to call on for the review and publication process to work.  But the more that disciplines are mixed and matched in research, the smaller that pool of qualified

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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