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Peer reviews – an invisible part of scientific research

Sarang Thombre

The job of a scientist is to do research. Science is based on a sufficient amount of published research that guides decision-making and development. It is easy to see the process of scientific research as such a simple, linear matter; however, questions remain. Not all scientific research is of a high quality and mistakes do happen – what if erroneous information becomes generally accepted as fact?

Peer reviewers act as gatekeepers of knowledge

Research is an umbrella that ends up covering large amounts of things that the scientific community would not accept. However, research is a term that regrettably easily grants those who shelter under it authority in front of the public.

The simplified version is missing an essential piece, peer reviews. Quality control is, naturally, a part of each stage of the research process, starting from the strict evaluation of research project applications. However, peer reviewers are the true gatekeepers of scientific knowledge.

Anonymity minimises bias

Peer reviewing is a practice where publications, or, for example, whole projects, are reviewed by impartial experts in the same field. The risk of bias is typically minimised by ensuring that the reviewer or reviewers and possibly even the writer of the reviewed publication are anonymous to each other. The reviewers read the publication, write down their observations and rating score for the parts of the text. A text with a weak rating score will not be published without significant revision. Earlier research is the foundation for new research. The foundation must be solid, otherwise what is built on it will collapse.

Sometimes a person's ideological background may prevent him or her from accepting scientific knowledge: if the result of research does not fit the individual's own ideas, it is not accepted as fact. That said, recent research from the United States, such as the PoPUS project, does reveal that understanding the activities of the scientific community and the nature of scientific knowledge increases people's trust in scientific research results.

Material and immaterial rewards of peer reviewers

Peer reviewing is a significant part of a scientific researcher's job. It is both important and demands a considerable amount of work. Reviewing multi-page publications demands many working hours. Reviewing a larger entity, such as a project, can require several hundred working hours. The work requires perseverance and there are no immediate rewards from it, but it is worth making the effort to produce good science. My colleague, Research Professor Sanna Kaasalainen was rewarded as one of last year's best peer reviewers in the ranking list of the scientific journal Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing (TGRS), published by the world's largest technical professional organisation IEEE.

However, I believe that the greatest reward is the feeling that the hours spent working on a great number of publications is the reason why everyone who is hungry for knowledge can trust peer-reviewed research results. In today's era of conflicting definitions of truth, trust in non peer-reviewed science is not something we can take for granted.

With contributions from Sarang Thombre
Research Manager, Department of Navigation and Positioning at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute FGI


In the National Land Survey's blog, different writers discuss current matters that are relevant to the agency.