Peer review — or how an experiment becomes scientific literature

What is happening now?

Now that the data collection and  analysis are complete and the results written in a paper, the next step is for the paper to be verified by the scientific community before going public. Peer review is the process the scientific community uses  for quality control of results. While a new exoplanet or supernova might have little impact on our immediate life, mistakes in some scientific disciplines (eg. biomedical research, chemistry, climate change,.. ) can have very serious consequences. Requests for research funding, patents, space missions and even new medicines are generally not accepted unless they rely on publicly available, peer reviewed research.

An important component of the peer review process are the scientific journals. Some journals will publish anything as long as it is scientifically correct, while some others will only publish results that are deemed novel or represent a very significant advance.

Who decides what it is correct and significant?

For each paper, there are at least two key people that are responsible for assessing correctness and significance. They are the editor and the referee(s). To understand how peer review works, it is better to explain the life cycle of a scientific paper.

Flow chart of the peer review process.
Flow chart of the peer review process. The approximate status of our paper as of July 1st, is marked with the red dot.

Submission

The authors must choose to submit their paper to a journal of their choice. Once the journal receives the manuscript, a scientific editor is assigned to it. This editor manages and supervises the process. Editors are respected senior scientists that work full-time for the journal, or work at a University and part-time for the journal. Papers can be rejected at this stage because the editor considers there is not sufficient original science in the result, or because the article does not match the philosophy of the journal.

Paper sent to review

After a preliminary quality assessment, the editor will search for experts to provide a more detailed revision.  These experts (called referees) are scientists not involved in the result but are experts in the field to which the paper relates. One or more referees can be assigned to a paper, and they are asked to submit a report within a  few weeks.

Referees’ opinions have a lot of leverage over the fate of a scientific result. Since referees are likely to be working on a related topic, conflicts of interest can arise and it is the editors job to carefully monitor the process. For example, if a reviewer is exceedingly enthusiastic, aggressive (or even careless), editors can search for additional referees or ignore a review. Referees are asked to follow strict ethical rules and confidentiality. The identity of the referees is not revealed to the authors to protect their independence.

First revision

After a while referee reports are sent to the editor and s/he then decides whether or not to proceed with the publication. Passing first revision is an important milestone because serious show stoppers are often identified at this stage. If the referee reports are not negative, the editor forwards them to the authors, and they are given some time to address comments and criticisms. Typical requests consist of providing additional data, analyses, adding references to previous work, and providing better discussion on obscure points of the original manuscript.

This is where we are with our Proxima paper!

After implementing the changes, the authors re-submit the article together with responses to the referee reports. The editor forwards all this information to the referees, and the process is iterated until the editor accepts it.

Acceptance

At acceptance the editor has become convinced that the paper meets the quality standards of the journal. They then write an acceptance notification which is met with great delight by the authors.

We hope to reach that point soon!

… but it is not over yet

Acceptance only concerns the content. At this stage authors might need to remake plots, prepare final tables and even rewrite some small parts of the paper. This process is done in collaboration with the production teams of the journal and can take from a few days to a few weeks. Final editing is performed in collaboration with professional writers who take account of English language and style.

As in any other professionally published work, the last editorial step consists of sending the paper in its very final format (commonly called  ‘galley proofs’) to the authors for their final approval. When this is done, a publication date is assigned and the peer review process is complete.

…hooray!

Scientific results can also be presented in conferences or other media, but these are not considered valid references unless they are published in a peer review journal. Alternative peer review procedures are being tested, but still the vast majority of scientific production goes through this classic peer review system.

… reaching the public!

It is becoming increasingly important to raise awareness of new scientific (peer reviewed) discoveries, and to be clear of what they mean to all of us. Scientists often don’t have time nor the skills to do that, so this falls into the hands of outreach, press offices, science writers and science communicators in general. When a significant result is achieved, the information needs to be transformed from the dry rigour of a scientific paper to something non-specialised audiences can digest. This includes the so-called general public, but also companies, governments and policy makers who might need to decide on crucial matters based on the most updated evidence.

So, if you are a scientist and once the paper is accepted for publication, it’s a good time to contact your outreach department and work together on how to best bring the new results to the public.