Peer review

For two years now, I have been pondering how to teach my students about peer review. Love it or hate it, peer review is an essential part of science. Expert scrutiny makes a huge difference. The review process is why you can trust scientific papers more than, say, the latest political diatribe. It is why I trust what climate scientists say, even though I cannot judge climate science myself.

How to show students the power of this system? I tried just saying it when I first did the course in 2010.  The students glazed over. Last year I showed the students a couple of reviews I had got. They seemed slightly more interested.


So this year, I am going to go the whole hog. I am going to do the review process in real time.  We’ve just finished the best paper I have ever written. Conceivably, it is the best paper I will ever write (I hope not), and it concerns drug resistance, one of the most important topics of the age. It got bounced from Science two weeks ago – unreviewed. I wept. We’ve since sent it off to Nature. I am sure I will be crushed again. Since this story is likely to run all semester, I figure I can involve the students in the emotional roller coaster. With luck they will learn about the review process, and the essential negativity of science – and that scientists are humans who get really, really emotional about rejection.
I am slightly scared about this experiment. Not normal to bare my soul in front of 178 young people.
Noted added after class: This soul-bearing approach actually seemed to work as a teaching device. The students seemed engaged in the review process. The tragic thing was that the form letter rejection from Nature arrived a few hours before the class, which I duly reported to the students, ….so the saga continues. I wonder if it will be done by semester end. Hopefully, whatever happens, there will be lots of teachable moments.

4 thoughts on “Peer review


    First, this is a very brave idea. There is nothing quite as soul-crushing as having reviewers take your very best work and shred it. I am as ever extremely impressed with your willingness to lay it out there in the name of a greater goal.

    However, I know this work and I think it is the very best. I’m a little worried that using this example alone will lead your students to believe that the review process simply blocks new and innovative approaches (as is the case here) from making it into the literature.

    What if you provide an example of when the review process works? When it elevates what we thought was our best to be…even better?

    What about getting the students to review each others blog posts?


    Sorry to hear about the rejections.

    I peruse site and check up on whatever new publications that are posted, but I don’t pretend to understand any of it. I’m happy that you’re still teaching to the general populace of students.

    I’ll be interesting to see how (if you document it) the study sessions and the peer review process work together in a smaller group setting.


    Your openness to even having the discussion with your students or public in the first place says plenty about, what I think is anyway, your considerable capabilities for positive impact through teaching.


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