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When to trust (and not to trust) peer reviewed science

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The article is part of our occasional long read series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society.

The words “published in a peer reviewed journal” are sometimes considered as the gold standard in science. But any professional scientist will tell you that the fact an article has undergone peer review is a long way from an ironclad guarantee of quality.

To know what science you should really trust you need to weigh the subtle indicators that scientists consider.

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The standing of the journal in which a paper is published is the first thing.

For every scientific field, broad journals (like Nature, Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) and many more specialist journals (like the Journal of Biological Chemistry) are available. But it is important to recognise that hierarchies exist.

Some journals are considered more prestigious, or frankly, better than others. The “impact factor” (which reflects how many citations papers in the journal attract) is one simple, if controversial measure, of the importance of a journal.

In practice every researcher carries a mental list of the top relevant journals in her or his head. When choosing where to publish, each scientist makes their own judgement on how interesting and how reliable their new results are.

If authors aim too high with their target journal, then the editor will probably reject the paper at once on the basis of “interest” (before even considering scientific quality).

If an author aims too low, then they could be selling themselves short – this could represent a missed opportunity for a trophy paper in a top journal that everyone would recognise as significant (if only because of where it was published).

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Researchers sometimes talk their paper up in a cover letter to the editor, and aim for a journal one rank above where they expect the manuscript will eventually end up. If their paper is accepted they are happy. If not, they resubmit to a lower ranked, or in the standard euphemism, a “more specialised journal”. This wastes time and effort, but is the reality of life in science.

Neither editors nor authors like to get things wrong. They are weighing up the pressure to break a story with a big headline against the fear of making a mistake. A........

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