Peer review is a cornerstone of evidence-based medicine, a vital part of the checks and balances that help to ensure that scientific publishing is one of our most robust sources of evidence. As we recently celebrated this year's peer review week, it is important to acknowledge that peer reviewing literature is a valuable skill that needs to be nurtured. The peer review system, in short, is only as good as the peers who review, and every peer reviewer needs to start somewhere. As an early career researcher, being invited by a journal editor to review a paper for the first time is an honor, but it can also be daunting.
To help introduce new researchers to the skills needed to review their peers’ research, we at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, have recently launched a free online resource to support people in reviewing the most common types of population health research. Understanding Health Research is an interactive online tool designed to help anybody to engage critically with published health science, including students and researchers carrying out their first peer reviews, or reviewing unfamiliar research methods for the first time.
Understanding Health Research walks the user through a series of questions designed to highlight key aspects of research necessary for reaching conclusions about the quality and usefulness of the research. First, a set of general questions encourage reviewers to consider core concepts such as whether the paper has received appropriate ethical approvals and whether their research questions or aims are clear and focused. Next, the user is guided to a series of questions specific to the methods being used. For example, if reviewing a clinical trial, the key quality criteria would include questions about control groups, randomization, blinding and the measurements taken.
Once all questions have been answered, the tool gives the user a summary of the answers they gave along with guidance on what the ramifications of those answers might be. Understanding Health Research can be seen as a companion to established critical appraisal tools such as CASP checklists, which highlight the value of treating the critical appraisal as a deliberate, step-by-step process. In addition to acting as an interactive critical appraisal checklist for researchers, our tool is also useful for teaching critical appraisal skills to non-scientists, or anyone new to engaging with scientific research papers. Another useful tool for early career researchers starting out in the process of peer review is Peer Review: the nuts and bolts, a guide produced by early career researchers of the Voice of Young Science network.
Understanding Health Research was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Glasgow, the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and was funded by the Medical Research Council’s Population Health Science Research Network.
Amy Nimegeer and Chris Patterson are researchers at the University of Glasgow's MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.
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