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[ RESEARCH INTEGRITY ] September 6, 2023

Depth vs. breadth in peer reviewer expertise

How can we find that balance between depth and breadth in evaluating submitted research? When it comes to peer review, the challenge lies in balancing the knowledge of specialized experts with the fresh perspectives of interdisciplinary researchers.

The art of expertise

Specialization is critical as scientists follow more and more complex lines of research. When in doubt, researchers dig deeper, ask more questions, and explore uncharted territories. The scholarly community has seen a recent increase in specialization within individual academic disciplines, leading to a greater pool of knowledge and a deeper understanding of the way our world works. This, in turn, kickstarts invention, driving progress in technology and science.

Take, for example, the astonishing strides being made in the field of single-cell genomics. Single-cell genomics builds upon the knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project by allowing researchers to study individual cells within the human body at the genomic level. This specialization enables scientists to explore the genetic diversity among different cells, understand how individual cells function, and gain insights into diseases at a more granular level, leading  to a deeper understanding of our biological makeup.

But, what happens when researchers become so specialized in their disciplines that they don’t know what is happening outside their sub-field?   In the midst of a pressing peer review shortage made worse by the escalating volume of research, we cannot afford peer reviewers who are unable to effectively evaluate research beyond their highly specialized boundaries. Could an overemphasis on hyperspecialization potentially undermine the integrity of the entire review process?


Elevating interdisciplinary ideas in peer review

Famed philosopher, Adam Smith, once said, "[t]he greatest improvements in the productive powers of labor…seem to have been the effects of the division of labor." 

Carrying out this division of labor can go too far; however, and create a silo effect in academia. In our increasingly interconnected world, science thrives on collaboration, with researchers sharing ideas, sparking inspiration, and achieving groundbreaking discoveries together.

For instance, consider the Human Genome Project upon which the highly specialized field of single-cell genomics was founded. This effort, launched in 1990 and completed in 2003, aimed to explore all the features of human DNA, mapping and sequencing all human genes. It involved researchers from several different disciplines and nations and stands as the largest and one of the most successful collaborative biological endeavors in history.

Now, let’s think about the potential impact on peer review. Some fields naturally complement each other and call for diverse perspectives. What can a computer scientist's insights illuminate about neuroscience, or how could a psychologist's viewpoint shed light on the consequences of climate change?

Yet, academia does not always favor interdisciplinary collaboration. As one academic shared on Twitter, "The disincentives to interdisciplinary research are strong. Combining two fields, my colleagues and I have been rejected by journals in both fields because neither saw our research as sufficiently pure, despite recognizing its quality."


Striking the right balance

Both hyperspecialized researchers and interdisciplinary academics can bring value to peer review. The solution lies in combining both perspectives. Just as institutions are encouraged to foster a culture of cross-disciplinary interaction and recognize interdisciplinary contributions, journals and funding agencies can benefit from ensuring diversity in their peer review panels. Including experts from many different backgrounds can help to provide a more balanced evaluation of research that spans multiple disciplines. Interdisciplinary peer review produces broader perspectives that strengthen and add nuance to academic criteria. These diverse viewpoints can greatly enhance the peer review process as we work to scale a sustainable research integrity ecosystem.

What’s more, it is also worth embracing diversity when it comes to the individuals in funding agencies and tenure and promotion criteria, ensuring that researchers from all backgrounds have equal opportunities for advancement.



Ultimately, we need peer review to be able to evaluate hyper-specialized research at depth, while also not disincentivizing interdisciplinary research because we don’t have the peer review infrastructure.  As fraud scandals continue to hit headlines, combining depth and breadth in reviewer pools can lead us on a path to better integrity, efficiency, and innovation.

In addition to incorporating fresh new perspectives, the academic community should remain open to innovative evaluation methods. Morressier’s Peer Review workflows are rewiring the process for the better, going beyond the traditional approaches, and ensuring rigorous assessment at every stage of the research lifecycle.

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