Published online 26 July 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.441


US federal agency loosens peer-review rules

Changes at US Geological Survey will make it easier for government Earth scientists to publish externally.

Marcia McNuttUS Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt has introduced rules to make it easier for agency scientists to publish in external journals.Richard Clement/Newscom

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has updated its peer-review policy to make it quicker and easier for scientists to publish their work, scrapping a five-year-old internal-review process.

"Most of us who were opposed to the original policy can now live with this one," says Tom Edwards, an ecologist who works in the agency's biological-resources division in Logan, Utah. Edwards has pulled his name off several papers to spare external collaborators the hassles imposed under the old policy.

The issue dates back to 1996, when Congress restructured the USGS to incorporate biologists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and other federal agencies. In 2006, seeking a consistent standard for all its scientists, the USGS issued a policy that required them to submit their work to two internal reviewers and obtain a sign-off from a higher-level bureau official before seeking publication in an outside journal. The journal, in turn, would apply its own scientific peer-review process.

Double the peer review meant double the time and effort, and many agency scientists pushed back. Some also feared that the extensive internal reviews represented an effort by the administration of President George W. Bush to block the publication of some research for political reasons.

The policy was particularly unpopular with the agency's biologists, who Edwards says publish most of their work in external journals. Responding to an internal agency survey in the spring of 2010, 82% of USGS biologists said that the internal review took too long, and just 26% said that it improved the quality of published work.

Review revised

Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist who became director of the USGS in 2009, ordered an internal advisory committee to review the requirements. That committee published its recommendations in an internal report this month. The revised policy is already in effect, but the agency plans to issue guidelines that will explain it in detail as early as next week, says Linda Gundersen, director of the USGS's Office of Science Quality and Integrity.

Scientists submitting their work to external journals will now be required to consult a single internal reviewer. In many instances, this can now be a direct supervisor already familiar with the work.

Scientists will also be able to submit their papers for internal and external review simultaneously, reducing the time lost to serial reviews, although the policy still requires one final review by an official in the Office of Science Quality and Integrity before the work makes it into print. "Because so much of our work is mission-oriented work that goes to decision-makers, we have to be vigilant about making sure we maintain our objectivity," says Gundersen.


Still, Edwards and many of his colleagues wonder why the agency didn't do away with the requirement altogether. That is what the FWS did when it issued its latest peer-review policy in January 2010. Rather than mandating an internal review, the revised policy requires FWS scientists to include a disclaimer stating that their findings and conclusions are their own and not those of the agency. "Then it's the author's responsibility," says Ralph Morgenweck, a senior scientific advisor to the agency, who is based in Denver, Colorado. "We didn't see the need for double peer reviews."

But Robert Hirsch, a USGS scientist who formerly served as the survey's chief hydrologist in Reston, Virginia, says that he pushed for the old policy and still supports it. "Many people have seen very evil and nefarious intent in this, but any sort of organization should want to exercise a pretty strong quality-control mechanism over its work," he says.

Hirsch is reserving judgement on the updated policy until he sees the full details. But if the agency leaves peer review in the hands of external journals of varying quality, he says, "we're letting someone else control our quality-assurance process". 

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