Has “peer review” failed??

An interesting, provocative and thought provoking post by Nigel Calder here.

It would seem that “peer review” which was intended to improve the quality of scientific papers has actually been a hindrance to new discoveries rather than a help. As Climategate has shown very clearly the “peer review” process is easily perverted by the ruling clique preventing anything opposing their views to be published and the prevailing group-think ensuring that anything “heretical” is suppressed.

“As there is not the slightest sign of any end to science, as a process of discovery, a moment’s reflection tells you that this means that the top experts are usually wrong. One of these days, what each of them now teaches to students and tells the public will be faulted, or be proved grossly inadequate, by a major discovery. If not, the subject must be moribund.”

Back in 1989, James Lovelock had this to say about “peer review”: ‘Before a scientist can be funded to do a research, and before he can publish the results of his work, it must be examined and approved by an anonymous group of so-called peers. This inquisition can’t hang or burn heretics yet, but it can deny them the ability to publish their research, or to receive grants to pay for it. It has the full power to destroy the career of any scientist who rebels.’

Galileo facing the inquisition

Calder continues:This month the life sciences magazine The Scientist has interesting articles on peer review.

One, entitled “Breakthroughs from the Second Tier”, describes five “high-impact” papers that should have been published in more prestigious journals than they were. You can see it here http://www.the-scientist.com/2010/8/1/30/1/.

Also in The Scientist is “I Hate Your Article” by Jef Akst, who quotes David Kaplan, professor of pathology at Case Western Reserve University:

Theoretically, peer review should “help [authors] make their manuscript better,” [Kaplan] says, but in reality, the cut-throat attitude that pervades the system results in ludicrous rejections for personal reasons—if the reviewer feels that the paper threatens his or her own research or contradicts his or her beliefs, for example—or simply for convenience, since top journals get too many submissions and it’s easier to just reject a paper than spend the time to improve it. Regardless of the motivation, the result is the same, and it’s a “problem,” Kaplan says, “that can very quickly become censorship.”

Akst’s full article is here: http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57601/ . It goes on to discuss some of the ideas on offer for easing the peer review problem. That’s the basis for this brief update to be added to Magic Universe.

Amid growing recognition of problems with peer review, a few scientific journals tested various remedies. As reported by The Scientist magazine, by 2010 they included ending the anonymity of reviewers, so that they could both be held responsible for their comments and be acknowledged for their work, which was time-consuming. Another policy was to insist that reviewers should concern themselves only with the rigour and proper reporting of the work, not with its impact or scope. And to speed up publication, reviewers’ comments made for one journal might be passed on to others. Some journals went so far as to publish preliminary versions of papers before the peer-review process was complete.

Peer review has to get back to being strictly a review of the quality of the work done and not a commentary on or a review of the conclusions to be drawn.

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