What is ‘peer review’?

journal

All BBC Lab UK findings are peer reviewed. Peer review is the scrutiny of new scientific discoveries by experts in the field, and is an essential step in ensuring the quality of scientific studies. Find out more below.

If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest names in the history of science, said: ‘If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ If scientific discovery is the process of standing on the shoulders of giants, then peer review checks the sturdiness of those shoulders.

Anyone can tell the world that they’ve made an important new discovery. But how good was the experiment that led to the discovery? Can we trust that new knowledge and use it as the basis for further research?

By documenting the entire experimental process, from hypothesis to conclusion, other experts in the field can scrutinise the design of the experiment and the validity of the data.

Research papers

An account of an experiment is known as a ‘paper’. Papers are published in monthly or annual periodicals called ‘journals’. Most journals specialise in a particular area of research. This is important because it ensures expertise can be concentrated around particular lines of scientific enquiry.

Journals such as Nature and Science are widely available and also have a large non-academic readership. Both journals have a broad interest in topics with far-reaching public interest.

The peer review process

Professional scientists seek to push forward the boundaries of knowledge. Attempts to mislead the academic community with fake or inaccurate results are extremely rare. But even the most well-intentioned scientist can miscalculate or overlook an experimental flaw.

A pile of journals

We aim to publish all Lab UK experiments in peer reviewed journals.

Peer review is employed when a scientist’s work is submitted to a journal for publication, or when an application for funding is made. The scientist’s proposals or findings are scrutinised by a qualified committee which will aim to identify any mistakes, oversights or flawed thinking.

Outcomes of the peer review process include: unconditional acceptance of the manuscript or research proposal; conditional acceptance on the understanding that certain alterations will be made; or rejection.

Once a submission has been accepted for publication in a journal, the research work is then open to scrutiny from a much wider pool of experts in the same field of research. Subscribers to the journal or publication can analyse every step of the experiment and comment with their opinion on the validity of the paper and its findings.

Problems with peer review

For all its benefits, peer review is not a fail-safe system. There have been several prominent examples of published journal papers based on hoax or otherwise invalid results. Such results are often exposed when others cannot replicate them.

As with other professions, there will sometimes be accusations of cronyism and bias in the scientific community. Anonymous reviewing (either single or double blind) makes bias less likely.

Why peer review is important to BBC Lab UK

The aim of Lab UK was to create new knowledge by working with leading scientists and academics to produce scientifically valid results from mass participation experiments.

Part of this process included submitting the results of Lab UK experiments for peer review in journals, so it could be scrutinised and checked. Publication of the results also means that the wider community of scientists and academics will benefit from Lab UK, enabling them to push the boundaries of knowledge even further.

Back to BBC Lab UK homepage

Also on BBC Lab UK

  • About BBC Lab UK
  • BBC Lab UK is a website where you can take part in real science experiments.

  • Experiment results
  • Find out what Lab UK and the BBC audience has discovered so far.

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