» Online Review Sites – A source of Truth?

13 August, 2019

Recent events like “dieselgate” and the PIP breast implant scandal have seen an erosion of trust in self-declarations of conformity, resulting in a move towards a peer review culture.  Dating back to the 17th Century, peer review of research articles is a long established and important part of the scientific and academic communities.  The advent of the internet and web-based technology has decoupled peer review from its original environment and made it more accessible to the professional and consumer sectors.  Previously ad hoc recommendations from trusted friends, fellow professionals and industry experts have effectively been widened and formalised, with the creation of dedicated review sites such as Checkatrade and TripAdvisor, as well as retail platforms such as Amazon and eBay incorporating review functions into their systems.

However, these customer rating review systems themselves are not without their faults and are open to exploitation.  In addition to customers increasingly suffering from review fatigue, the largely anonymous and unaccountable nature of modern review systems is cultivating a thriving “fake review” industry.  Which? recently described the number of fake reviews on Amazon as unacceptable, whilst the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is urging eBay and Facebook to take action against the numerous fake review services that are being offered via their platforms.  Governments across the world are scrambling to get ahead of the evolving fake review industry; with the CMA warning that it’s illegal to either solicit or write fake reviews, US Congress summoning the Chief Executive of amazon to explain what his company is doing to tackle the issue and the Italian courts sentencing a man to nine months in prison for selling fake TripAdvisor reviews.

As well as over-inflated “five star” fake reviews, there is a similar problem with malicious “one star” ratings given by competitors or those with an axe to grind.  The overall effect is that bias is creeping into the peer review system, skewing the playing field and eroding trust in the system’s integrity.

Review sites still have a valid role to play in modern vetting systems.  Indeed, in its recent Market Study on Statutory Audit Services the CMA is recommending giving the regulator the power to appoint a reviewer “to improve audit quality and by introducing an additional, independent quality check” in certain pre-defined circumstances.

The underlying theme is that in order for review systems to be trusted they need to be robust, measured against the same universally accepted standards and independently verified.  However there is no need to reinvent the wheel as the process of accredited testing, inspection and certification is already delivering confidence in the integrity of peer review systems in a wide number of fields.

UKAS itself is subject to a peer review process by other national accreditation bodies from overseas.  In the health and social care system, UKAS accreditation helps deliver confidence in the competence and impartiality of both clinical peer reviews and scientific data.  UKAS is part of the NHS England Knowledge Partnership Network programme, which aims to enable the information exchange between clinical and scientific leaders of high value new approaches to improving patient outcomes, increasing efficiency and inward investment in life sciences.  Following a submission to the Care Quality Commission (CQC) third party peer review and accreditation scheme panel, three UKAS healthcare accreditation schemes (Clinical Pathology Accreditation, the Imaging Services Accreditation, and Physiological Services (IQIPS)) are now formally recognised as part of the CQC inspection programme.  UKAS also accredits organisations that carry out peer review of health and social care services against quality standards developed from National guidance.

Far from being unique to the health and social care sectors, the principles, benefits and lessons learned from UKAS accrediting these peer review systems are readily transferable to other industries.  UKAS is currently engaged in liaising with government and the regulators to identify the peer review sectors where accreditation would be most effective, and would welcome dialogue with industry bodies, key stakeholders and other interested parties.