However, changes in the way research is conducted, including many changes caused by digital technologies, have put pressure on the peer review system.13 The volume or diversity of research data supporting a conclusion may overwhelm the ability of a reviewer to evaluate the link between the data and that conclusion. As supporting information for a finding in a submitted paper increasingly moves to lengthy supplemental materials, reviewers may be less able to judge the merits of a paper. In addition, journals and funders can have trouble finding peer reviewers who are competent and have the time to judge complex interdisciplinary manuscripts.

Peer review cannot ensure that all research data are technically accurate, though inaccuracies in data can become apparent either in review or as researchers seek to extend or build on data. The research system is based to a large degree on trust. As described later in this chapter, training and the development of standards are crucial factors in building trust. Broader cultural forces such as reward systems, the reputation of researchers and their institutions, and social and cultural penalties for violation of trust also serve to build and maintain trust.

A recent example that illustrates both the limitations of peer review and the strengths of the cumulative nature of science is the case of Seoul National University researcher Woo Suk Hwang. Major advances in stem cell technology that were reported by Hwang and his colleagues and published in the journal Science were based on fabricated data.14 The fraud was uncovered and confirmed after the original publication because of continued scrutiny of the results by the research community. Another case involving fabricated data is described in Box 2-2.

Changes in publication practices are affecting peer review. Largely because of advances in digital communications, the scholarly publishing industry is undergoing dramatic changes, some of which are having a major influence on the economics of the industry.15 Peer review is expensive because of the time devoted to the process by editors, reviewers, and authors responding to reviewers’ comments. Changes in the economics of scholarly publishing may put pressure on editors and publishers to lessen the emphasis on peer review as they strive to cut costs and increase efficiency.

At the same time, digital technologies can strengthen peer review by catalyzing and facilitating new ways of reviewing publications. For example,


Stevan Harnad. 1998. “Learned inquiry and the net: The role of peer review, peer commentary and copyright,” Learned Publishing 11:183–192. Available at Accessed February 23, 2007.


Mildred K. Cho, Glen McGee, and David Magnus. 2006. “Lessons of the stem cell scandal.” Science 311(5761): 614–615.


National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2004. Electronic Scientific, Technical, and Medical Journal Publishing and Its Implications. Washing-ton, DC: The National Academies Press.

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