Three-quarters of the British public have no idea what ‘peer review’ means, according to a recent MORI poll, commissioned by the Science Media Centre in the UK and Nature. One would guess that the situation would be similar no matter where the poll was conducted.

Like it or loathe it, peer review is the only means science has at the moment to police itself effectively. There has been and still is much debate about whether peer review is the best solution and what form it should take. It relies on the whole scientific community buying into the idea and participating, as Bob Rapp points out in his column this month (page 13). And, like any system, it is not foolproof as recent cases demonstrate. Not only can incorrect results or plagiarism slip through the net, the peer review system can stifle the publication of new, truly revolutionary work or the criticism of well-established, powerful names. Particularly if, as Rapp suggests, it is often more junior scientists who do and should be encouraged to act as referees.

But, as any scientist who has experienced it can attest, peer review is probably one of the most stringent forms of scrutiny that can be imagined – and one, I guess, that most members of the general public would rather not have to go through in their own professions! Despite the recent scandals, it is reassuring that, in the end, the truth has come to light and incorrect data has been spotted in the literature. In fact, when the MORI poll asked its respondents what sort of controls should be in place before scientific data, especially that relating to safety or human health, should be released into the public domain, most suggested something along the lines of peer review.

But it is worrying that the majority of those interviewed in the poll were unaware that the scientific data that make it into the literature have already gone through such scrutiny. For science to continue to have a meaningful dialogue with the general public, they must, like the scientific community, buy into peer review. It should also be said that the media, and science journalists in particular, must be aware that peer review exists and seriously question data that has not been subject to such scrutiny. Conversely, journalists also have to depend upon the assumption that peer reviewed work is ‘trustworthy’. Which brings us to the heart of the problem: the ‘trustworthiness’ of scientific data.

The general public must have confidence in or trust scientists, particularly crucial to the acceptance of new technologies such as genetically modified foods, gene therapy, and, now, nanotechnology. Part of the reason for the poll was not just to raise the issue, but to encourage scientists to discuss peer review in all their interactions with the media. “This poll strengthens our appeal to the scientific community to talk more about the way science works,” says Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre. “It's surely time for scientists for to share their secret – that there is a process relied on by scientists to sort out the wheat from the chaff.”

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00104-X