There is a presumed halo around peer review which is quite unjustified. And when a publish or perish attitude prevails in academia it is inevitable that political correctness – as defined by the “peers” – colours whatever gets published. And “political correctness” in science leads to a stamp of approval for what fits with the “consensus”. Nothing revolutionary can get through. Anything which smacks of being “heretical” has little chance of passing “peer review”.
In 1936, Albert Einstein—who was used to people like Planck making decisions about his papers without outside opinions—was incensed when the American journal Physical Review sent his submission to another physicist for evaluation. In a terse note to the editor, Einstein wrote: “I see no reason to address the—in any case erroneous—comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.”
Melinda Baldwin considers the question “Did Isaac Newton need peer review“
Peer review at scholarly journals involves recruiting experts to evaluate a paper before it is approved for publication. When a paper is submitted, the editors send it to two or three reviewers who are considered knowledgeable about the topic. The reviewers and the authors, in theory, do not know each others’ identities. If the reviewers raise objections to the methods or conclusions, the authors must revise the paper before it will be accepted for publication. If the objections are significant, the paper is rejected.
Most observers regard non-peer-reviewed results as, at best, preliminary. Instinctively, this makes sense. When a paper is printed in a scientific journal, it acquires the “imprimatur of scientific authenticity” (to quote the physicist John Ziman) and many observers consider its findings to be established scientific facts. It seems like a good idea to subject a paper to expert scrutiny before granting it that sort of status.
But it turns out that peer review is only the scientific community’s most recent method of providing this scrutiny—and it’s worth asking if science is, in fact, “real” only if it’s been approved by anonymous referees.
…. Nature published some papers without peer review up until 1973. In fact, many of the most influential texts in the history of science were never put through the peer review process, including Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica, Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper on relativity, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s 1953 Nature paper on the structure of DNA. ….
……… Peer review’s history is of particular interest now because there is an increasing sense in the scientific community that all is not well with the peer review process. In recent years, high-profile papers have passed peer review only to be heavily criticized after publication (such as the 2011 “arsenic DNA” paper in Science that claimed a particular bacterium could incorporate arsenic into its DNA—a finding most biologists have since rejected). Others have been retracted amid allegations of fraud (consider the now-infamous 1998 Lancet paper claiming a link between vaccines and autism). Many scientists worry that requiring approval from colleagues makes it less likely that new or controversial ideas will be published. Nature’s former editor John Maddox was fond of saying that the groundbreaking 1953 DNA paper would never have made it past modern peer review because it was too speculative. ….
“Peers” – and especially since they have to be knowledgeable in the field – always have some vested interest. It could be to defend their own work, or to publicise their own work, or to gain support for their own funding, to help young researchers get published, or to hinder others. Careers can be enhanced or destroyed by aiding or preventing publication. Anonymity also means that there is no accountability for the consequences of the reviewer’s views. Inevitably nothing revolutionary that may be attacked by an influential reviewer can even be submitted for publication. And therein lies the problem with “politically correct” science.
Now with the ease of on-line publication increasing, pre-publication, anonymous peer review is obsolete and has to give way to post-publication, attributable review.