PA Editorial

PA EDitorial
Peer Review and Research

Peer Review and Research: Integrity in the information age

No one talks about the ‘information superhighway’ anymore. In the 1990s, the term was used to describe the internet’s potential to provide unparalleled access to information. Institutions and individuals would be able to ­- in seconds – find the answers to questions which would previously have required intensive work. World news, expert commentary and the findings of academic and scientific researchers would be available at the click of a mouse. The consensus saw this as an unalloyed good.

However, predictions often have a habit of oversimplifying things. The highway that once promised so much has transformed into something akin to a chaotic crowd of raised voices – a spaghetti junction of opposing views and competing interests. So how does the methodical, evidence-based peer review process fit into this shapeless cacophony?

The principles of peer review

First, it’s worth restating the purpose and principles of peer review. It’s defined in scientific and academic circles as ‘the process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field’.

Leaving aside the arguments about different peer review methods, its central purpose – to maintain research integrity – is to test the validity and quality of papers before the editors of reputable journals publish them. Poorly argued, inadequately evidenced or plagiarised articles are rejected.

The main benefits of peer review

The integrity of academic publishing is maintained by subjecting papers to rigorous scrutiny that can correct vague or misused terms. It can also challenge mistaken assumptions and conclusions, identify conscious and unconscious bias, verify the reliability of sources and methodology, explore conflicting perspectives, improve clarity and enable the academic community, institutions, businesses and the general public to have confidence in the results of research.


Comprehensiveness and transparency are essential in creating confidence. When trust in experts is damaged, people will stop listening to them. A government minister once famously claimed people had ‘had enough of experts’. Far more serious is the situation in which people no longer see any reason to believe them.

Despite the overwhelming good faith with which the vast majority of research is conducted and offered for dissemination, there are many examples of fraudulent or negligent research in recent history, some of which have proved more damaging than others, but all have contributed to a dwindling of trust.

Lies, damn lies and research

In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published his infamous study of the MMR vaccine in the highly regarded medical publication The Lancet. In hindsight, it can be suggested that it was almost designed for tabloid consumption and to generate headlines screaming about causal links between the vaccine and autism.

Unsurprisingly, uptake of the vaccine fell, and instances of diseases which were considered largely eliminated began to increase. Moreover, the study was later revealed to be based on a self-selecting sample of just 12 case studies. As a work of epidemiology, it was worthless, and Wakefield was eventually struck off. However, the damage to public health had been done.

Other notable examples include the plagiarism case at the University of Kansas involving Mahesh Visvanathan and Gerald Lushington; Hwang Woo-suk’s fabrication of successful stem cell experiments; Columbia University’s alleged miracle purporting to show a correlation between prayer and pregnancy; and even the falsification by Photoshop of the benefits of red wine.

Whatever the researchers’ motives, they exploited the trustworthiness of scientific research to support their misdeeds and, in so doing, exposed serious weaknesses in the system.

Fake news

While it’s impossible to blame the internet for these cases, it’s certainly true that their effects were magnified by the ease with which they were communicated, combined with the attitude of ‘never mind the facts, the headlines were all that mattered’.

This same principle underlies the alarming phenomenon of fake news, notoriously euphemised by President Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway as ‘alternative facts’ [1]. The absurdity of this oxymoron should be obvious to everyone, but it proved to be a convenient way of discounting inconvenient truths.

Conway’s comment is part of a worldview that seeks to distinguish facts from the truth and encourage people, in that dreadful phrase, to ‘do their own research’. Scepticism about what is often derogatively called the ‘mainstream media’ enables people to choose the facts that suit them, searching the internet for confirmation of their own bias. The potential to undermine not just news reporting but all academic and scientific research is limitless. Let’s just consider a few examples.

After a mass shooting was narrowly averted at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, the armed man who was arrested explained that his mission was to rescue children held there as sex slaves for a paedophile ring organised by Hillary Clinton. His source? Twitter [2].

In the 2015 US presidential election, many attempts were made to undermine the Democratic candidate, including a story on a news website asserting that tens of thousands of fraudulent ballots cast for Hillary Clinton had been found in a warehouse [3]. Another site, posing as the New York Times, claimed the senior senator Elizabeth Warren had endorsed Bernie Saunders [4].

Closer to home, there are persuasive claims that during the 2016 EU referendum, the Russian government attempted to influence the result with a massive online campaign of disinformation [5], while Facebook was heavily criticised for merging information gathered from Instagram and WhatsApp [6].

Even climate change, evidenced by science and experienced in our daily lives, is still the subject of strident denials, thanks to the false equivalence given by social media platforms to the two ‘sides’ of the argument.

Perhaps the most alarming instance of all is the spread of allegations about Covid-19, not just President Trump’s suggestion that sufferers could be treated with injections of bleach [7] or the ill-informed proclamations of high-profile sceptics like Van Morrison, Nicki Minaj and Novak Djokovic, but also the daily hail from millions of individual deniers on Twitter.

The dangers of unverifiability

It’s important to acknowledge that ‘citizen journalism’ is essentially a good idea. At its best, it provides an outlet for silenced voices under oppressive regimes and in war zones. It can also broaden access to verifiable information. However, if it is used to ignore the facts about climate change or public health emergencies and to undermine the democratic process, it can prove to be extremely dangerous.

The parallels between fake news and the loss of integrity in scientific research are striking. When people lose faith in professional journalism, it becomes easy for them to disregard the findings of scientists, experts and academics.

Peer review has always been fundamental to trust and integrity.

However, today, truth is under attack as never before, and the consequences of this attack can be profound. As a result, a transparent, rigorous and impartial peer review system is more important than ever.

At PA EDitorial, we provide a complete peer-review management service, working with publishers and editors to introduce new workflows or perfect existing ones. Our expertise lies in the ability to remove the managerial pressures of peer review and leave professional editors, writers, and academics to concentrate on the core work of developing, writing, and assessing innovative new ideas to enrich the world’s store of scientific and academic knowledge.









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