Peer Review: A Foundational Component of Our Science

September 16, 2019 · 0 comments

by Keith L. Seitter, CCM, AMS Executive Director

This week we join many other scientific publishers celebrating Peer Review Week to highlight the importance of high-quality peer review in the scientific process. The process of peer reviewing research results has been an indispensable component of the modern scientific enterprise: when scientists talk about having reached a consensus in some area of research, they mean that there is a consensus in the peer-reviewed literature. This week gives us an opportunity to focus on the importance of peer review while also recognizing the dedication of researchers around the world who make considerable commitments of time to ensure its continued success while usually receiving little or no explicit credit for those contributions.

When a researcher submits a manuscript presenting research results to a high-quality journal like those AMS publishes, the editor of the journal selects several experts in relevant specialties to review of the manuscript. These experts make sure the author(s) have carried out their experiments, observations, and/or analysis following sound practices and that their conclusions can be justified from the data and analysis they have provided. In their reviews, these experts identify weaknesses or flaws in experimental design or reasoning and suggest additional research and analysis that might be required, as well as other ways to improve the paper.

The editor collects these peer reviews and determines if the manuscript can be made suitable for publication. If the science is flawed and the paper cannot be made acceptable with a reasonable amount of additional work, the paper is rejected. More than one in three manuscripts submitted to AMS journals are rejected. The editor’s decision is provided to the authors, along with the full set of reviews with the names of the reviewers removed (unless the reviewer chooses otherwise), along with the editor’s decision. If the paper has not been rejected, the authors follow the guidance of the editors and reviewers to revise the paper, which then may face additional peer review under the editor’s direction. If the paper can reach the point that the editor is satisfied with the quality of the work, the manuscript is accepted for publication.

Peer review, even when implemented in the rigorous manner used by AMS, is not perfect, of course. Occasionally important research is initially rejected in peer review, or fundamentally incorrect research survives peer review to publication only to be shown later to be incorrect. Peer review done well, however, greatly reduces the chance of publication of poor or incorrect science, and experience has shown that overall the process is extremely successful. That is why scientists depend virtually exclusively on results presented in rigorously peer-reviewed journals and why major scientific assessments—like the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—rely on peer-reviewed literature from well-established, high-quality journals like those published by AMS.

Astute readers will have noticed that I refer to “high quality journals” multiple times above. It is important to make that distinction because there are journals vying for authors’ papers (and the income they provide) that do not put the time or expense into doing peer review with the rigor employed by the AMS journals. Authors, and the scientific enterprise itself, are best served by those journals that invest the resources needed to do the peer review to the highest standards. AMS journals enjoy membership in the elite group of such high quality journals that serve the atmospheric and related sciences.

Let me close with note of appreciation for those who maintain the very high standards of peer review for the AMS journals.  While the professional staff at AMS does a wonderful job of ensuring smooth and expedient reviews, as part of a positive author experience that is among the best in scientific publishing, it is the volunteers who serve as chief editors, editors, associate editors, and reviewers who dedicate the time and energy to maintain the AMS journals as world-class publications. And the reviewers especially deserve credit given that their efforts are, by design, mostly done anonymously for the collective good of science. All of us owe these dedicated individuals our thanks.