Peer review, the process by which the quality of work is assessed, encompasses multiple activities. This portion of the handbook is concerned with two types of peer review that researchers encounter in the extra-institutional setting. First, there is the peer review of research proposals, the system by which the NIH and other federal and nonfederal supporters of research assess the scientific merit of grant applications. Second, journals and other publishers utilize a form of peer review to assess the quality of articles and other written works describing scientific findings.
These forms of peer review are based on the premise that skilled scientists in the same or similar field of research as that being considered are best equipped to evaluate the merits of a proposal or the quality of a written work. It is a sound premise that has worked well for many years and one that most individuals in the research community vigorously support.
This is not to say that the system is without problems. For peer review to function as it should, reviewers must be knowledgeable, objective, and impartial. This can be a particular challenge in both arcane and fast-moving fields of research where it may be difficult to find a sufficient number of reviewers who are both intimately familiar with the area of research in question, yet neither personally associated nor in competition with the investigator or a competitor.
Case C1, for example, points to just that problem in the context of reviewing a grant application. The protagonist has clearly gleaned information from a proposal that proved useful to his own work. He is thus beset with the problem of balancing his desire to correct the course of his own work against retaining confidentiality and respecting the work of others.
Confidentiality is another aspect of peer review that, while frequently debated, is generally considered essential if peer review is to operate effectively. Yet, in the case of assessing submissions to journals, reviewers may be tempted to solicit the opinions of friends and colleagues with expertise in a particular area. This practice, which may pose breaches of confidentiality, is described in Case C2. Readers interested in the topic of confidentiality as it relates to peer review may also wish to refer to Case D3 in the following section on Handling Research Data, Materials, and Proprietary Information.
The suggested reading list includes the confidentiality statement that is read by all NIH study section members in the review of grant applications, and other materials that should afford a better understanding of peer review in the federal contract and grant system. It also points to a number of statements that outline standards of integrity for journal reviewers and discusses dealing with conflicts of interest in that context.