Peer Review

Philosophical Transactions
Philosophical Transactions

This is an edition of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1861, and one of the papers here is by John Tyndall one of the first pieces of research on what we now call the “greenhouse effect”, the way that different gases absorb heat. Peer Review is the method of validating these findings.

There is table after table of results, but he also describes precisely how he got to those results, and there is a beautiful diagram of his apparatus, and this is there so that anyone else reading this paper, if they are sceptical about the results or even if they just want to check them, can rebuild the apparatus and redo the experiments and check that Tyndall didn’t make any mistakes.

Philosophical Transactions

So these results are not a matter of opinion, they’re here, they can be checked by other scientists, they can be verified. So, this is how scientific knowledge progresses. Publishing is the reason why science gets to our best view of the way that nature works.

The Practitioner Publication
The Practitioner Publication

Since the Philosophical Transactions emerged in 1665, thousands of journals have been published on every aspect of science. Scientific journals have flourished in this way because they can be trusted. What’s printed in them is as close to a statement of fact as you can hope for.

And we can trust in that science thanks to a unique British-born system of self-regulation that lies at its heart – peer review.

Dr Philip Campbell

Dr Philip Campbell
Dr Philip Campbell

Dr Philip Campbell is the editor in chief of the journal, Nature. And peer review is central to its reputation as one of the greatest journals in the world.

Professor Brian Cox “Could you run through the peer review process, and describe exactly how that works?”

Dr Philip Campbell “So, peer review is an attempt by colleagues, as it were, of the authors, there appears, to see whether what these authors have produced looks valid. He or she will look at that and really rip it to shreds, digging into the data and then coming back to us and saying,’ I’ve really looked at this stuff and it’s stood up to what I thought.’ Or they’ll say it doesn’t.”

Professor Brian Cox “So, how would you assess the effects of this, of the peer review process, just objectively? Does it do what we all want it to do? Which is be absolutely objective in a pure assessment of where our scientific knowledge is.”

Dr Philip Campbell “It’s full of little holes, that’s how I see it. There are all sorts of ways in which bad papers can slip through. It’s not perfect and I’m sure that there are degrees of bias. But I would feel a lot more worried if we were retracting a lot of our papers. Actually, we retract very few of our papers. I believe that’s because what we publish is, by and large, robust. I really cannot think of a more critically minded group of people than scientists.”

Peer review is not the only service provided by scientific publishing. Because the journals are one of the key voices of the scientific community, providing a forum for continued debate. This continuous interrogation by the scientific community helps sort the good science from the bad. Gradually, this gives way to a consensus with scientists agreeing on the latest findings and their meaning.

Dr Philip Campbell “No paper is the end of the story. So, even though it’s got the Nature name on it, from my point of view, I know that it’s only when it’s been out there and people have really tested it and try to build on it, that we really know whether it’s true.”

Global warming is a good example. Now, there’s an overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon dioxide and other emissions into the atmosphere is changing the climate, warming the world. So, how did that consensus develop?

Dr Philip Campbell “The climate system is enormously complex and I don’t think there is any single paper that can ever show one way or another that climate warming because of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases is occurring. So, it’s only over a lot of time and a lot of cumulative evidence, and you lot of critical scrutiny that you end up convinced that something is really happening. I would so love to show that climate change isn’t happening in a way that I do actually believe threatens my grandchildren’s future. But, it’s so unfortunate that we don’t seem to be getting papers that show that it’s wrong.”

Peer Review
Professor Brian Cox reading

Peer review is an attempt to introduce an additional level of rigour to the process of discovery, allowing us to distinguish between tested hypotheses and speculation. The difference between a book and a scientific journal is that, in a book, you’re reading an author’s opinion. Nobody else in the world may agree with the contents of this book and you wouldn’t know. It’s a statement of opinion. Whereas a scientific journal has been through some level of checking, experts in the field have looked at it and found that it’s not obviously wrong. So a scientific peer review Journal is in a sense a snapshot of our best view of the world, of a particular subject, at any given time.

From Newton’s rational approach, to publishing and peer review, Britain has arguably had a greater influence on how science is done than any other nation.

But perhaps that legacy can be seen most clearly in France. Or rather UNDER France, and Switzerland.

This rather unimpressive set of buildings might look like a third-rate provincial technical college, but housed in them are scientists engaged in what is, without doubt, one of the most important experiments ever undertaken.

Large Hadron Collider

CERN Building
CERN Building

Below the ground here, around 100 m below the ground, is the Large Hadron Collider. It’s 27 kilometres in circumference. Its job is to accelerate protons to 99.9999% the speed of light, at which speed they circumnavigate these 27 kilometres 11,000 times a second.

The protons are collided together, and with each one of those collisions, the conditions that were present less than a billionth of a second after the universe began, are recreated.

The sheer audacity of it, that human beings might be able to reach back 13.7 billion years to discover how the universe evolved, is breathtaking. And yet, that’s what’s being done here on an epic scale.

Hadron Control Room
Hadron Control Room

The Large Hadron Collider is the most complicated scientific experiment ever built. But it’s still just an experiment like any other. At its heart, there is repeatable process‚Ķ as with Newton’s prism. There are teams of people dedicated to making detailed measurements, as Cavendish did with his flammable air. And the same rigourously logical thought processes used by Bill Tutte are, of course, applied here too. These are simple principles, yet they hold a great power. Half of the world’s particle physicists, 10,000 of them, and gathered here because of the tantalising prospects of what they might discover.

News reader “Researchers at the Centre for Nuclear Research near Geneva‚Ķ Have just announced in the last few minutes that Higgs boson, the so-called God particle, has been glimpsed.”

Peter Higgs

Peter Higgs
Peter Higgs

In July 2012 it was confirmed that a new particle, the Higgs boson, had been detected. This elusive piece of the subatomic jigsaw is responsible for the masses of the building blocks of the universe. The particle is named after British physicist Peter Higgs, who worked on the theory some 50 years earlier.

The discovery is a vindication of the ideas behind CERN, but the reason that we can be confident in the discovery is the painstaking effort that has gone into the design of the experiments. Even to the point of funding two separate teams of researchers, analysing exactly the same things.

A cross-check so vital that the teams are not allowed to discuss their work, even with each other.

My institute in Manchester is part of an experiment about a few hundred meters that direction called Atlas, it’s a collaboration of over 160 institutes from 38 countries, and together, we designed, rebuilt and we operate that experiment. Now, if you go several miles in that direction, over to the other side of the LHC there’s another collaboration. It’s called CMS and it’s run by different physicists. Who designed, built, and it is operated completely independently from Atlas. But they are both designed essentially to do the same thing, which is to search for new physics like Higgs boson.

And because these two groups found exactly the same thing, everyone could be confident that the Higgs really had been discovered. It’s this, the scientific method, that gives CERN and all of scientific investigation its power and validity.

Professor Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox

CERN is the best example of what modern international science has become and you see all the basic principles of science put into action here, from precision observation to peer review. So, I suppose, CERN perfectly embodies all the things that Britain over four centuries has given to science.

Science is one of this country’s success stories, many of its important characters are British, and Britain has always been a place where crucial discoveries are made. Newton’s theory of gravity, the structure of the atom, the form of the DNA molecule, all courtesy of a few small islands in the North Atlantic.

But these great discoveries haven’t happened by accident. The existence of organisations like the Royal Society and the Royal Institution demonstrates that here is a place where enquiring minds are valued, and the, apparently, unknowable is thought worthy of investigation.

This is also a nation that celebrates curiosity, and when combined with a powerful method to investigate nature, this has always ensured that British science is disproportionately represented amongst the world’s best.

Britain, with only 1% of the world’s population and 3% of the investment, produces almost 15% of the most influential scientific papers. And given that our civilisation is built on science, that science is the only way we have of understanding how nature works, then it seems to me that Britain’s place today as the best place in the world to do science is something that’s worth cherishing, investing in, and protecting for the future.

External Links

Peer Review – Wikipedia Page

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