Investing in peer review to strengthen African science

Capacity in science has two key dimensions: the competency to undertake credible research, and the skill to review and assess research for its scientific merit and authenticity.

The latter – peer review – is at the heart of the scientific enterprise because it can increase both the salience and legitimacy of research.

But many scientists, and this is especially true in Africa, lack the capacity to conduct credible peer review. This is a critical skills gap that needs to be addressed.

Roots of the problem

It is easy to identify the roots of the problem: students and scientists receive little, if any, formal training in peer review, and donors have paid no attention to the issue.

This is in fact a global problem, but the situation is particularly acute in Africa.

The continent’s capacity in peer review resembles a typical developing country age pyramid, with many inexperienced researchers at the bottom and a few experienced scientists who are capable of reviewing at the top.

There is no single textbook aimed at guiding the novice on how to perform peer review, although some guidelines on how to deal with reviews do exist.

A systematic review of peer review (Jefferson et al 2002) concluded that the current “practice of peer review is based on faith in its effects, rather than on facts”.

Sense About Science (2009) found that 56% of surveyed peer reviewers felt that there was a general lack of guidance on peer review, and 68% thought that formal training would help improve their reviewing skills.

Tackling the lacuna

A group of scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre recently discussed the issue of how to address this lacuna in high quality peer review in African climate sciences.

The group concluded that capacity development in peer review deserves as much attention as skills training for conducting and reporting research.

Short trainings have little impact on improving the quality of peer review, which is not surprising given the various competencies required to distinguish excellent from mediocre science.

Formal teaching, embedded in established curricula, is critical. One approach would be to design, test and adapt curricula that aim to develop competency in peer review for the staff and students of tertiary education institutions.

Once successfully tested and adapted, these courses could be institutionalised in higher education curricula in the developing world, including Africa, through tertiary education networks.

Ideally, education in peer review should become mandatory for doctoral students and optional for masters students.

The African Academy of Sciences, and its funders, are best placed to develop and disseminate such educational programmes to enhance peer review capacity on the continent.

The advantages of accreditation

A complementary approach would be to develop a global accreditation system that registers researchers who are skilled in peer review. Such a system could include facilities to (self) assess aspirants’ reviewing capabilities, advise on and make available training, and offer a certification test.

National or supranational science organisations, such as the International Foundation for Science, or national or regional academies of science such as the African Academy of Sciences, are best placed to develop and house such an accreditation system.

If accreditation were obligatory for those seeking a career in science, then it might be possible to run the system commercially.

Accreditation in peer review has many advantages. Researchers would benefit from developing their capacity and gaining recognition for their competency, with possible spin-offs for greater personal research efficiency.

Employers in research would benefit from the assessment of a core competency among their staff and could consider using it in selection procedures and performance evaluations.

Scientific journals would benefit from better peer review through certified peer reviewers; indeed, having a higher proportion of certified reviewers could also enhance a journal’s reputation.

Strengthening African scientists’ capacity to conduct credible peer review is just one small step to improving the quality of the continent’s science and building the skills of the continent’s scientists.

But both of those things are key to helping the continent develop its own climate research agenda – and ultimately helping African farmers prepare to meet the many climate-related challenges that lie ahead.

* Muhammad Mehmood-Ul-Hassan and Jan De Leeuw work at the World Agroforestry Centre, or ICRAF, in Nairobi, Kenya.

* This article by Muhammad Mehmood-Ul-Hassan and Jan De Leeuw, titled “Investing in peer review to strengthen science in Africa”, was published in the July 2015 edition of Science*Policy*Africa, the newsletter of the African Academy of Sciences. It is republished with permission. The article is based on an article submitted to the Global Sustainable Development Report.