• Sun. Sep 26th, 2021

Scientific peer review: courage to play the lottery


Aug 6, 2021

The German Council of Science and Humanities is concerned about the future of scientific reviews. It fears a loss of quality and acceptance.

More and more journals are entering the market Photo: dpa

"The complaints about the state of the peer review system cannot be ignored." The sentence comes from Martina Brockmeier, the new chairwoman of the German Council of Science and Humanities, itself an important peer review body in the German science system. This week, the body presented a position paper (pdf file) with partly unusual recommendations to prevent the creeping loss of quality and acceptance of the scientific expert system.

The factual knowledge and assessments of scientists are increasingly in two-way demand. On the one hand, internally, the scientific system itself: Here, publications, scientific essays with new research results, are reviewed by colleagues who remain anonymous before they are published in journals – the so-called peer review process.

Around two million research articles were published worldwide in 2015, with the number increasing by eight percent each year. In addition, there is the evaluation of scientific institutions and the decision on research proposals, which are increasingly awarded in competitive procedures.

Second, expert knowledge is increasingly ordered by politics, business and society. Expert opinions are intended to prepare decisions, and sometimes also to prevent them in political battles. The federal government alone has commissioned a total of 491 expert opinions in the last three years and paid 59.5 million euros for them, according to an overview prepared by the Federal Ministry of Finance for the Bundestag budget committee in the summer. With rapid growth.

While the federal ministries managed with 91 scientific reports in 2014, it had to be 222 studies in 2016. One reason for the increase, according to the Science Council, is the "increased need for reassurance in decision-making."

The burden is growing

Change is called for, especially since, according to rough estimates, a good third of the science experts in Germany prepare two-thirds of the expert reports – for them, the burden is constantly growing.

"If more reviewing tasks are permanently distributed among a number of reviewing scientists that is not growing accordingly, collateral effects cannot be avoided," the Council of Science and Humanities raises its warning finger. "The reviewers can either spend less and less time on other tasks or have to produce more reviews in the same amount of time, so that the risk of a loss of quality in the review performance increases."

The recommendations of the Council of Science and Humanities aim to initiate change. "With a mix of cautious changes and bold experiments, we should succeed in making the peer review system crisis-proof for the future," says chair Martina Brockmeier.

Mainstreaming in research funding

For example, the danger of "mainstreaming" in research funding should be countered with "innovative selection procedures" – such as random selection or with the help of a special vote, so-called wild cards.

"Mainstream" reviewers only accept the prevailing doctrine and do not give new research approaches a chance. If there are more research applications than funds available, the Science Council says, "some of the applications worthy of funding could be funded according to a random selection." Courage to play the lottery.

In an initial assessment of the paper, Berlin-based science journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda was enthusiastic: "Lottery procedures and wild cards – someone say again that the Science Council doesn’t dare to do anything," he wrote in his science blog. It will be exciting to see "whether the German Research Foundation and other public funding organizations will dare to take up the proposals."

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