Friday, April 10, 2020

Can skipping the peer-review process be a legitimate way to communicate science?

Science is an approach to inquiry and knowledge production that provides an unsubstitutable approach to evaluating empirical claims. And it is a specific and particular thing. Beyond the experiments and data collection, science must be communicated in order to impact knowledge and inform humanity’s understanding of the world around us and potential solutions to problems of our own making. The gold standard for communicating scientific findings is through peer-review. Peer review is the process by which research articles are assessed by other experts and these reviewers are the gatekeepers that determine if papers should be published and how much revision they require. These reviewers look for flaws in logic, methodology and inference, and ensure that findings are set in their proper context.

So, peer-review is not perfect, but it is necessary and can always be improved. However, there is another question: is it always needed? Are there legitimate reasons for a scientist to skip the peer-review process?

To me, there could be reasons to skip the peer-review process, but the goals should be clear and we need to acknowledge that conclusions and inferences will always be in doubt. Yet, impacting the scientific understanding of some phenomenon and communicating it to other experts might not be the goal. Like this blog post, for example. There can be other communication objectives that do not necessarily require peer-review.

Here are three non-peer reviewed communication pathways that I’ve personally pursued, and I’m not including blogs and other social media here, because I think they differ in their goals and objectives, but these are communication approaches you might want to consider:

1-    You might want to capture a broader public readership, to tell a story in a way that captures a non-specialist audience. For example, you might want to extend your science to a call for policy or societal change or to draw attention of the public and policymakers to a critical issue. I was recently a co-author on several papers that attempted to do this, for example, one on the need to protect the Tibetan Plateau, and another on the globally uneven distribution of the readership and submissions of applied ecology papers.
2-    You might want to target a specific audience that does not need to access peer-reviewed literature. Especially for agencies and NGOs that need specific guidance and summary of best practice. The grey literature is a rich and diverse set of communication pathways, which is not well captured in journals nor permanently available (something with the British Ecological Society that we’ve been trying to overcome!).
3-    You may desire to publish information or findings that are desperately needed and extremely time-sensitive. I recently decided to skip the typical peer review pipeline to get out analyses showing that governmental responses to COVID19 quickly resulted in significant drops in air pollution, across six different air pollutants for those cities impacted in February. I published the findings in this blog and posted the manuscript to EarthRQiv.

Why would I do this, especially when I am reporting the outcomes of hypothesis tests and data analysis? I did submit the manuscript to Science and it was quickly rejected, and I’m sure legitimate biogeochemists and atmospheric chemists are already submitting better analyses. However, I told myself before submission that if it was rejected, I would immediately go to plan B, which I did. I felt that the need to engage in this conversation and to shine the light on policy decisions that would lead to reduced pollution were too important for me to pursue the lengthy peer-review process, especially one that is not in my area of research. So, my plan B was to post to a preprint server and blog it. My hope is that it will spur more discussion and further analyses.

In some ways, these alternative vehicles for communicating science have been an experiment for me, but I have the luxury to do this given that I now have a mature research program and rather large group. Its is important to evaluate how we value non-peer reviewed material, or more importantly, how you use these to tell the story about your contributions to society and your impact. While we clearly need to distinguish peer-reviewed and non-reviewed material, and that there is no replacing the impact of peer-review, we should view non-peer-reviewed material more positively and as a way for knowledge mobilization and engage other communities in discussion. As scientists, we need to think carefully about when and how to communicate and the value of this communication to both society and to our careers. But certainly, these alternative forms of scientific communication can help make the broader impact statements on grant and tenure applications more compelling.

We are ultimately evaluated primarily on our peer-reviewed science, as it should be, we can better tell our story about our contribution with a complementing minority of other communication types. I would go so far as to say that a scientist who only publishes peer-reviewed articles might be missing important opportunities to share their knowledge and have an impact on societally important issues.

Excluding blog posts and tweets, about 30% of my contributions are not peer-reviewed. If I include blog posts, then I’d guess I’m at about a 1:1 ratio, peer-reviewed to not. But I am at the stage in my career where this is less risky to do. Pursuing alternative communication forms needs to be non-linear, you need more peer-reviewed articles upfront to establish your credibility which then frees you to pursue other intellectual endeavours and modes of communication. But perhaps more importantly, you’ve established that you are knowledgeable and a trusted authority, meaning that your non-peer-reviewed writings have greater impact.

Regardless, many of us got into this business to expand our collective understanding of the world around us or to make the world a better place. Neither of these goals is achievable if we are not communicating to non-scientists.


Manu Saunders said...

Agree that peer review has its problems. But how much credence do you think that non-peer reviewed articles have beyond specialist audiences? We know that some preprints are flawed and can be dangerous to science communication, and social media is easily used to spruik misinformation or vested interests. Simply posting our research openly is not an answer to 'science communication'. Topical example is the "study" about runners spreading COVID-19 (

Marc Cadotte said...

Hi Manu. I very much agree with your broader point of view, though I think a multifaceted approach to communication can have value. For example, I wouldn't want the first COVID19 insights to necessarily go through three to six months of peer review to then be trapped behind a paywall. I'd want to see the hypothesis- or treatment-generating ideas out there that careful experimentation and peer-reviwer evaluates over time.

In some disciplines, the pre-print server is a critical component of publishing, where all articles start their lives and are subject to an open and transparent peer-review. This way, new ideas are out there and stimulate more research while still being subject to correction and revision. I would love to see our field go this way too!