Written evidence submitted by Professor
R N Franklin (PR 08)|
This submission is made by someone who has been involved
as an active scientist for more than fifty years, who has been
the Editor of a scientific journal - Journal of Physics D: Applied
Physics and currently referees for six journals in this country
and the United States at a rate of about twenty papers a year.
Additionally he has been so concerned about the process of peer
review that he wrote an article on the subject published by Physics
World last December hoping to provoke a discussion amongst the
scientific community, so he welcomes the initiative of the Parliamentary
1. See peer review, thoroughly and conscientiously
done as a fundamental part of this process underpinning scientific
progress. My concern has been the tendency on the part of journals
generally to reduce the process of reviewing/refereeing to a "box
ticking" and point scoring exercise to assist the burgeoning
staff in the offices of the publishers handle submissions, when
what should be occurring is a dialogue between author(s) and a
2. As the author of some 200 papers, on several
occasions I have had to challenge the competence or performance
of referees, and so far have never lost a challenge. So I believe
the ability to mount such a challenge as important as that in
law where the "accused" can challenge "jurors".
This usually involves adjudication by a member of the Board, and
I believe that it should apply to all journals. Several allow
authors to name possible referees, provided they have not been
associated with the work, and the number exceeds that normally
used by the journal so that there is an element of choice by the
3. But I believe that the tradition of anonymity
followed by most journals so far as referees are concerned, is
contrary to the current trend towards openness and accountability.
I would favour a system where the names of referees were published
as a footnote when the paper concerned has been accepted and published.
This would help the readership assess the quality of the work;
furthermore it would give the referee(s) pause for thought.
4. Moving on to referees, these are chosen by
the staff of journals, not entirely at random, but it is not clear
what qualifications such staff have to carry out such a task.
Nowadays most universities ask for a detailed justification as
to his credentials when inviting someone to be an examiner for
a Ph. D. This is a lower level activity than refereeing for a
journal, but nowadays the result of an oral examination is open
to challenge, so both the institution and the examiner need to
be protected against such a challenge. There is a nominal fee
for carrying out a PhD Viva, but refereeing for a journal carries
no reward and thus a referee cannot be held to account.
5. I referred above to the current trend to reducing
refereeing to a box ticking exercise. The questions asked do
not relate to what should be required of a referee. I give a
few examples of the information I regularly provide unasked -
(i) How much time did you spend? (ii) Did you familiarize yourself
with the references given? (iii) Did you check the detail of
the mathematics? (Only relevant for theoretical sections).
6. Thus I would favour a system in which refereeing/peer
review became a "professional" activity. This could
be introduced by journals monitoring the performance of younger
referees for their first five to ten occasions as an "apprenticeship"
after which they might be described as "professional".
(Some journals already send me Christmas cards!). The attraction
of this is that employers could use such information when assessing
members of staff for promotion rather than mere numbers of published
7. While it is possible for authors to issue
a subsequent Erratum, this does not deal with the situation where
the work is discredited and for a time some members of the community
know that it is discredited, while others continue to quote it.
A mechanism whereby authors themselves could announce that their
work was incorrectly interpreted, would allow retraction with
8. Finally, I would commend to all intending
authors the practice of circulating material intended for publication,
prior to submission, for comment and improvement. This might
be described as "friendly refereeing", but I know that
many active workers who trust one another already do this to great
9. The tendency towards secrecy and the use of
copyright I regard as essentially unscientific. But this does
not apply to the process of patenting which involves specified
application of pure knowledge and has its own rules of disclosure.
Professor RN Franklin DSc,
The Open University
24 February 2011