Peer Review in the Life Sciences

Spring 2021 Syllabus

Course Days/Hours: May 10, 12, 14, 17, 21, 24, 26, 28 from: 9-10AM

Location: Zoom!

Instructors: James Fraser

Course Description:

By far, the most widely accepted means of communication is through publishing papers in scientific journals. The process of peer review plays an important role in refining the body of work prior to final publication. Yet, peer review is rarely taught to students in a formal setting, and is largely dependent on individual labs and mentors, leading to variable standards of peer review. Reflecting the evolution of technology, society and scientific culture, preprints have gained popularity in the life sciences in recent years, resulting in a shift in how progress in the life sciences is communicated, and raising questions of how we, as a scientific community, may work towards optimizing the peer review process in the life sciences. This class will use preprint servers (for example, BioRxiv) as a platform for formally teaching students how to peer review manuscripts in a critical and constructive way.

We have modeled this class based on a course at NYU organized by Gira Bhabha, Damian Ekiert, Liam Holt & Timothee Lionnet.


“At its best, peer review is a slow and careful evaluation of new research by appropriate experts. It involves multiple rounds of revision that removes errors, strengthens analyses, and noticeably improves manuscripts.

At its worst, it is merely window dressing that gives the unwarranted appearance of authority, a cursory process which confers no real value, enforces orthodoxy, and overlooks both obvious analytical problems and outright fraud entirely.

Regardless of how any individual paper is reviewed – and the experience is usually somewhere between the above extremes – the sad truth is peer review in its entirety is struggling, and retractions like this drag its flaws into an incredibly bright spotlight.” - from The Lancet has made one of the biggest retractions in modern history. How could this happen?

Racism and Bias in Peer review

Unprofessional peer reviews disproportionately harm underrepresented groups in STEM

Racism in Science: We need to act now

Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards

Topic choice contributes to the lower rate of NIH awards to African-American/black scientists

NIH peer review: Criterion scores completely account for racial disparities in overall impact scores and critique by Drugmonkey

Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals

Course structure

Students will be paired to serve as co-Discussion Leaders for one manuscript they select that is posted on BioRxiv. For each class, everyone should be prepared by having read each paper carefully. The Discussion Leaders will prepare a joint talk similar in content and quality to a Tetrad or QBC Journal Club presentation, with an estimated 30-40 minute duration (noting that interruptions and discussion may take us closer to an hour).

Prior to the presentation, the co-Discussion Leaders will compose one joint review, reflecting their original thoughts on the manuscript. After the group discussion, the pair will edit their review to reflect what emerged in the discussion. The review will be posted (either named or anonymously through James Fraser acting as an “editor”) as comments associated with the preprint on BioRxiv or other servers.

Some good guidelines for reviewing

May 10

May 12