How peer review creates intangible assets

We all know that peer review is the standard method of grant and publication review in academia. As such it performs a gate-keeper role in the creation of knowledge. But there is another role that the peer review process plays in the creation of intangible assets: learning. According to an article published in The Scientist, “The grant-review process plays significant roles in the education of researchers and in shaping scientific progress.” As the article, “Opinion: Learning from Peer Review”, argues:

Absent from the many analyses and discussions of scientific peer review are two intangible but very important byproducts: 1) feedback to the applicant and 2) exposure of the reviewers to new hypotheses, techniques, and approaches. Both of these phenomena have a virtual mentoring effect that helps move science forward. Such learning can occur as a consequence of both manuscript review and grant application review, but the review of grant applications, by its very nature, is more iterative and impacts the direction in which research moves very early in the investigation.

In other words, the process benefits both applicant and reviewer. It is generally well accepted that the peer review process is often a learning experience for applicants. Feedback and suggestions are an important part of the process.
However, latter point about the learning by the reviewers is very important and often missed. The process is a two way exchange of information – not the one-way (judgment/critique) process that one normally associates with peer review. The reviewer learns in two ways: from the applicant and from the interaction with fellow reviewers. The younger reviewers learn about what it takes to write a successful grant application. Reviewers learn about new areas of research, data and techniques. Going beyond learning, interaction among reviewers (and even between reviewers and applicants) can lead to new collaborations and other knowledge exchanges outside of the specific review activity.
In sum, the article is a great example of how intangibles (relational capital, human capital and structural capital/knowledge) is created in activities seemingly for an unrelated purpose.

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