During a recent teleconference attended by the Executive Editors of the
various SPE journals and SPE journals staff, we discussed the value of
peer-reviewed publications vs. papers published as meetings proceedings. More
precisely, we talked about how to raise the profile of peer review among the
SPE membership. If you are reading the Executive Summary of the SPE
Journal, there is a good chance that you already attach some value to the
process of peer review, peer comments, and revision (and more revision) that
ultimately results in a positive or negative decision to publish a paper.
There are accounts of scientific peer review dating to 1665, but stringent
external peer review of scientific papers appears to have risen during the
mid-20th century. Previously, journal editors had greater latitude to select
papers for publication. Notably, Albert Einstein published five papers in 1905
in the journal Annalen der Physik with topics ranging from special
relativity to the photoelectric effect that resulted in a Nobel Prize.
Einstein's work was not reviewed by anyone except for the journal’s editor and
its coeditor, who clearly had an eye for quality scientific work. By the mid
1940s, however, journals such as Science and the Journal
of the American Medical Association routinely used peer review as a
method to vet manuscripts before publication.
Thus, given the relatively long history of engineering and scientific
publication, comprehensive peer review is comparatively a recent practice, but
has gained great significance as a means of establishing standards of quality.
The intent of peer review is not fully agreed upon by practitioners. In my
opinion, the object of peer review is to ensure that published work is novel, a
substantial addition to the literature, and on a topic that is of current
interest to readers. Peer review is helpful to identify and improve
shortcomings in research methods, results, and writing, given the fresh
perspective of reviewers. Peer review, however much we wish it to be so, is not
a guarantee that the work and interpretations are absolutely correct. Review
even continues after publication as others read, potentially reproduce, and
comment on the work. In fact, post-publication assessments may provide some of
the most valuable and critical reviews.
For those of us in academia, our interest in peer review seems clear in that
the quality and number of peer-reviewed publications is used as a measure to
evaluate career progress. Citations by other authors to our peer-reviewed work
are equally as important. For individual authors in industry, the value of peer
review, over and above a paper prepared for the proceedings of a meeting, is
perhaps less clear. A main benefit may be the critical feedback provided by
reviewers that is accompanied by reading with a fresh set of eyes and different
biases. Such critical feedback and suggestions for refinement may ultimately
improve the work. Peer review and acceptance may provide external validation of
methodologies and results. Thus, addressing the criticisms of reviewers may
produce better outcomes for the industry authors' specific projects.
For energy companies and industry as a whole, there is significant value to
peer review and publication that has probably gone underrecognized. In this
time of increased scrutiny of industry practices--hydraulic fracturing is an
example--a peer-reviewed body of knowledge in the public domain provides a
backstop of credibility. Many scientific and engineering assessments by
governmental and other organizations put great weight on reviewed literature.
Active peer review demonstrates that our profession self-regulates its
knowledge base and has a methodology for making best practices known widely.
Evolution of understanding of a problem and improved practices can be pointed
to in the peer-reviewed literature. Publications, and results therein, that
have not been peer reviewed are understandably regarded with some skepticism,
because review helps to remove false interpretations and claims, conjecture,
and undue commerciality.
For my own part, I counsel students conducting independent research or
coursework to be skeptical of everything that they read. In this time of
unprecedented access to information through the internet and comprehensive
search engines, much information and opinion is available readily. Filtering
search results to look for peer-reviewed manuscripts and reports aids in
finding credible sources. Cross-referencing of such credible sources also helps
one to find the debates and the larger scientific community’s opinion about an
individual manuscript so that results and methodologies are not taken out of
For those interested in more analysis and commentary, Nature offers an online forum devoted to the conduct
of peer review, the way that it is put into practice, and the debate over value