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Annual Lecture 2015: The Ugly Truth

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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AllTrials launched in the US with 50 supporting organisations

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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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Peer Review 101

Peer Review Week

Peer Review is a process where other scientific experts check research papers for validity, significance and originality. Whether research has been peer reviewed is also an important consideration for policy makers, reporters and the public when weighing up research claims and debates about science.

                                           Peer Review Workshops

But early career researchers (ECRs) tell us that it can be hard to know where to begin when they first start reviewing. This is why we run workshops to support ECRs in finding out how peer review works, the challenges for peer review, and how to get involved. Many publishers and organisations are now also offering webinars and resources to give reviewers some key pointers. There are plenty of resources out there including our own publication written by and for ECRs, Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts, and Wiley’s reviewer resource centre.

                                 The peer review process

To help the public make sense of science stories in the news, we have produced a guide called I don’t know what to believe. It explains how scientists present and judge research and how you can ask questions about the status of the scientific information presented to you. In the guide we encourage researchers to share the question "Is it peer reviewed?" with the public. It's a great first question to ask to assess scientific claims in the media.  

And as part of the Peer Review Week celebrations Wiley has summarised their top 10 tips for peer review in a 3 minute animation - we hope you enjoy it!


Peer Review Week ran from 28 September to 2nd October. Follow the discussion on Twitter: #peerrevwk15

Peer review matters!

Peer review week

Understanding peer review and asking about the status of claims is important to society because it helps people make decisions. Which is why we’re involved in Peer Review Week 2015, a virtual event to celebrate the fundamental role of peer review in maintaining scientific quality. 

From Monday September 28 to Friday October 2 we will be sharing articles and blog posts about peer review, resources for reviewers, views from our Voice of Young Science network of early career researchers, and a webinar on trust and transparency in peer review as part of the inaugural Peer Review Week. Check back here for more and follow on Twitter with #peerrevwk15!

Peer Review Week grew out of informal conversations between ORCID, ScienceOpen, and Wiley. Each organisation has a different perspective on peer review, and has been working independently to better support its role in scholarly communications. We joined the week to ensure the wider benefits of peer review – as a quality mark and tool for making sense of science claims – are shared with the public. We have our own peer review programme which is kindly supported by Biomed Central, Elsevier, F1000, Glasgow Caledonian University, Portland Press, PRE-Val, SAGE, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley.

We are pleased that several organisations are getting involved, and we will be sharing their activity during the week here, including Elsevier who will feature articles in Elsevier Connect and Author’s Update and promote the week on social media.

Victoria Murphy, Programme Manager of Sense About Science: "Peer review is an essential arbiter of scientific quality, and asking 'Is it peer reviewed?' helps people to query the status of science and research reported in the media. So during this inaugural Peer Review Week, we want to share that question as widely as possible. Raising awareness of the value of peer review – as we have done in collaboration with Elsevier when we developed one of the largest ever international surveys of authors and reviewers, the Peer Review Survey 2009, and with our guide for early career researchers, Peer review the nuts and bolts – is vital for maintaining quality in science."

Philip Carpenter, Executive Vice President, Research at Wiley, one of the partners of our peer review programme, said: “At Wiley we believe that peer review is the foundation for safeguarding the quality and integrity of scientific and scholarly research. Peer Review Week and our partnership with ORCID, Sense About Science and Science Open allow us to highlight the crucial role that peer review plays in protecting trust in scholarly communication.”

“Researchers spend a substantial amount of time reading and reviewing, but are rarely acknowledged for this important contribution to the community,” says Laure Haak, Executive Director of ORCID. “ORCID is pleased to be part of peer review week and the effort to increase recognition for review activities.”

And ScienceOpen’s CEO, Stephanie Dawson explains that: “Our goal is to help re-build trust in the peer review process by making it entirely transparent. We facilitate Post-Publication Peer Review from named individual experts to nearly 10 million open access articles and toll stubs currently available on the platform. We’re delighted to participate in this inaugural Peer Review Week.” 

Peer Review Week 2015 will run from Monday September 28 to Friday October 2, and will include a series of blog posts and interviews, a social media campaign, webinars, and more.  Follow Peer Review Week 2015 activities on Twitter #peerrevwk15

VoYS member Roganie Govender blogged about "5 reasons why peer review matters" for Elsevier's Reviewes' Update, and on Elsevier Connect Julia Wilson, Development Director of Sense About Science, asks "So does the public finally ‘get’ peer review?"

 Read about peer review around the world, and a discussion about peer review with some of the organisations involved in Peer Review week on Wiley Exchanges.

SAGE has posted a discussion about peer review with Emily Jesper, Asssistant Director at Sense About Science.

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Dr Thelma Lovick

Dr Thelma Lovick, who nominated John Maddox Prize winner Profesor David Nutt in 2013, writes about the Prize.

I forget how I heard about the John Maddox Prize. Probably an e-mail arrived one day and I was sufficiently intrigued to click on a link leading to the webpage explaining what the Prize was for. What I do remember is that, having read the criteria for the Prize, I knew immediately who the winner should be. David Nutt ticked all the boxes.

David Nutt was catapulted into the public eye in 2009 when he was publicly sacked from his position as Chairman of the Government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). His misdemeanor had been to publish a rational, evidence-based report on the safety of recreational drugs, which did not fit with Government policy.

The resulting media storm led to him being pilloried in the sensationalist tabloid press. Miles of column and web-based inches appeared. Lesser individuals might have crumbled, but not David. The “humiliation” spurred him to fight back. He now gives freely of his time to provide the public with the information it needs to make informed decisions about drugs based on facts, rather than preconceived ideas about drug use based on moral and political opinions or social acceptability. Few are prepared to put their heads above the parapet in this manner; it has been no mean undertaking. David Nutt’s scientific integrity and courage in addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in the face of hefty opposition are to be applauded.

I was thrilled when he won the prize. I am also thrilled that such a prize exists. I hope that the award of this prize to David Nutt will inspire others to stand up for their own science. “The strongest man is he who stands alone” (Ibsen, Enemy of the People).

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

Read Prof David Nutt's post about winning the Maddox Prize. 

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Professor Anthony David

Professor Anthony David, who nominated John Maddox Prize winner Profesor Sir Simon Wessely in 2012, writes about the Prize.

The John Maddox Prize was inaugurated in 2012. There was no precedent. It was not possible to say what sort of person tended to win the prize and what effect it tended to have on their careers and standing. I fully imagined that this prize, recognising as it does, standing up for science in a sustained and consistent way against obstacles and for little personal reward other than the benefits to society and science as a whole, would represent the pinnacle of a person’s career to be followed by a period of gradual decline in celebrity and gentle well-earned obscurity.  

So, what happened next? In 2013, Professor Wessely was knighted for his services to military healthcare and psychological medicine. In 2014 he was elected President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It’s been a fairly busy couple of years. Sir Simon is rarely out of the papers and the news standing up as he does for psychiatry as a discipline and the welfare of people with mental illness and for a generally more educated and tolerant society with respect to mental health.  The area of research that led Sir Simon to clash with a minority of patient activists in the contentious area of chronic fatigue/ME remains fraught but with steady progress being made in research which combines physical and psychological approaches to treatment. Sir Simon’s prominence shows that his willingness to put his head above the parapet, which earned him the John Maddox Prize, is an enduring trait and not a flash in the pan.

What happened next has therefore been, for Simon, the antithesis of a quiet retreat from public discourse. No time for leisurely reflection on a life of achievement but a full-on engagement and upward progression. Still, I would contend that, amidst all the recent honours and awards and those yet to come, the John Maddox Prize, for what it represents and says about the recipient, does remain the pinnacle of any glittering career.

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

Read Prof Sir Simon Wessely's post about winning the Maddox Prize. 

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Sir Simon Wessely

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Chair of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London and President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes about the John Maddox Prize, which he won in 2012.

It was the 16th October 2012 and a meeting of the senior clinical academic leaders at King’s Health Partners was coming to an end. It had not been the most scintillating of gatherings, largely concerned with the usual things that these meetings discuss – funding and the lack of it, space and its absence, bureaucracy and its ever increasing presence. And like many around the table I was inconspicuously checking my emails, when I uttered an involuntary expletive. Fortunately not of the Prince Philip variety, but any spontaneous sound was bound to attract attention. The Chair, Robert Lechler, raised his eyebrows. “Is anything wrong, Simon?” “No, not at all, I have just won a prize from Nature”. Robert’s eyebrows rose even higher, partly because he had misheard me saying “I have just got a paper in Nature”, which would have been truly epochal. “Jolly good,” he said, and the meeting returned to considering more important issues, such as trying and failing to understand the NHS reforms.

But for me this really was, and indeed still is, important, not least because it was so unexpected. The letter, from the wonderful Sense About Science, informed me that I had just won the first John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, what the prize was and why it was named after the former editor of Nature.

               “Sir John Maddox wrote prodigiously, expatiating on all that was new and exciting in scientific discovery and technological advance, denouncing fearlessly what he believed to be erroneous, dishonest or shoddy. He did it with humour and grace, but he never sidestepped controversy, which he seemed in fact to relish. His forthrightness brought him some enemies, often in high places, but many more friends. He changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove through his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science. The John Maddox Prize will, we believe, form a fitting memorial to the man and his work”

The prize was to be shared with the Chinese campaigning journalist Fang Shi-min, who had certainly earned it rather more than I had. He was not surprisingly unable to be present at the award ceremony which followed a few weeks later, although he did record a video message. I was asked to give a short speech, during which I announced that I would be giving half of the cheque that went with the Keep Libel Out of Science campaign, which got a big cheer, and the other half towards renewing my Chelsea season ticket, which didn’t. The awesome knowledge of science present in the room was not matched by their knowledge of football.

The citation for the prize made it clear that I had been honoured because of my work in the field of unexplained syndromes in general, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in particular. This was and still is an area in which not just angels, but many doctors and scientists fear to tread. I hope that will change, and that in future working in CFS will no longer attract the attention of the Judges of the John Maddox Prize. CFS was and still is an important area for medical research, and I hope that my own example shows that contrary to the belief of many doctors, it is not career ending to get involved in this or any other controversial area. Science thrives on controversy – embrace it, do not shy away from it. True, it is easier when dispute and debate is conducted in a tolerant and open minded atmosphere and even within the febrile atmosphere of CFS I have corresponded with many who can distinguish between disagreement and abuse. But sadly this is not the norm in more public spaces. I also know from the personal experience that comes from meeting now several thousand patients over a 30 year clinical career, that they have little in common with the vociferous minority who can give the subject a bad name. But perhaps I should be more grateful, since without the efforts of the latter, I would not have had the great honour of being awarded the John Maddox Prize.

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.