Archive for the ‘Peer review’ Category

Peer review as the erroneous comments of anonymous experts

May 28, 2014

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.

“Peer review is a regression to the mean. ….. a completely corrupt system” – Sydney Brenner

March 2, 2014
Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner, CH FRS (born 13 January 1927) is a biologist and a 2002 Nobel prize laureate, shared with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston. Brenner made significant contributions to work on the genetic code, and other areas of molecular biology at the Medical Research Council Unit in Cambridge, England.

A fascinating interview with Professor Sydney Brenner by Elizabeth Dzeng in the Kings Review.

I find his comments on Academia and publishing and peer review  particularly apposite. Peer review – especially where cliques of “peers” determine “correct thinking” – can not provide sufficient room for the dissenting view, for the challenging of orthodoxy. Orthodox but incorrect views thus persist for much longer than they should. Completely new avenues are effectively blocked and ideas are still-born.

Some extracts here but the whole conversation is well worth a read.

How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner

by Elizabeth Dzeng, February 24th

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Professor Sydney Brenner, a professor of Genetic medicine at the University of Cambridge and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. ….

SB: Today the Americans have developed a new culture in science based on the slavery of graduate students. Now graduate students of American institutions are afraid. He just performs. He’s got to perform. The post-doc is an indentured labourer. We now have labs that don’t work in the same way as the early labs where people were independent, where they could have their own ideas and could pursue them.

The most important thing today is for young people to take responsibility, to actually know how to formulate an idea and how to work on it. Not to buy into the so-called apprenticeship. I think you can only foster that by having sort of deviant studies. ……..

…… I think I’ve often divided people into two classes: Catholics and Methodists. Catholics are people who sit on committees and devise huge schemes in order to try to change things, but nothing’s happened. Nothing happens because the committee is a regression to the mean, and the mean is mediocre. Now what you’ve got to do is good works in your own parish. That’s a Methodist. 

ED: …….. It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment. What is the implication of this on the discovery of future scientific paradigm shifts and scientific inquiry in general? I asked Professor Brenner to elaborate.

SB: He wouldn’t have survived. It is just the fact that he wouldn’t get a grant today because somebody on the committee would say, oh those were very interesting experiments, but they’ve never been repeated. And then someone else would say, yes and he did it a long time ago, what’s he done recently?  And a third would say, to top it all, he published it all in an un-refereed journal.

So you know we now have these performance criteria, which I think are just ridiculous in many ways. But of course this money has to be apportioned, and our administrators love having numbers like impact factors or scores. ….

……. And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists. There are universities in America, and I’ve heard from many committees, that we won’t consider people’s publications in low impact factor journals.

Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people.

…….. I think there was a time, and I’m trying to trace the history when the rights to publish, the copyright, was owned jointly by the authors and the journal. Somehow that’s why the journals insist they will not publish your paper unless you sign that copyright over. It is never stated in the invitation, but that’s what you sell in order to publish. And everybody works for these journals for nothing. There’s no compensation. There’s nothing. They get everything free. They just have to employ a lot of failed scientists, editors who are just like the people at Homeland Security, little power grabbers in their own sphere.

If you send a PDF of your own paper to a friend, then you are committing an infringement. Of course they can’t police it, and many of my colleagues just slap all their papers online. I think you’re only allowed to make a few copies for your own purposes. It seems to me to be absolutely criminal. When I write for these papers, I don’t give them the copyright. I keep it myself. That’s another point of publishing, don’t sign any copyright agreement. That’s my advice. I think it’s now become such a giant operation. I think it is impossible to try to get control over it back again. …….. Recently there has been an open access movement and it’s beginning to change. I think that even NatureScience and Cell are going to have to begin to bow. I mean in America we’ve got old George Bush who made an executive order that everybody in America is entitled to read anything printed with federal funds, tax payers’ money, so they have to allow access to this. But they don’t allow you access to the published paper. They allow you I think what looks like a proof, which you can then display.

Elizabeth Dzeng is a PhD candidate conducting research at the intersection of medical sociology, clinical medicine and medical ethics at the University of Cambridge. She is also a practising doctor and a fellow in General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Wow! “Scientific study” reveals that healthy people live longer

December 17, 2012

This has been published in the BMJ today so it obviously has been “peer-reviewed” before publication. Crunch a little data (why only Olympic medalists and not all Olympic participants?), do some elementary statistics and come up with something profoundly obvious and it passes for “science”. It took no less than six authors!!

Survival of the fittest: retrospective cohort study of the longevity of Olympic medallists in the modern era, by Philip M Clarke, Simon J Walter, Andrew Hayen, William J Mallon, Jeroen Heijmans, and David M Studdert. BMJ 2012; 345

doi: (Published 13 December 2012)

15 174 Olympic athletes from nine country groups (United States, Germany, Nordic countries, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, and Australia and New Zealand) who won medals in the Olympic Games held in 1896-2010. Medallists were compared with matched cohorts in the general population (by country, age, sex, and year of birth).

Results More medallists than matched controls in the general population were alive 30 years after winning (relative conditional survival 1.08, 95% confidence interval 1.07 to 1.10). Medallists lived an average of 2.8 years longer than controls. Medallists in eight of the nine country groups had a significant survival advantage compared with controls. Gold, silver, and bronze medallists each enjoyed similar sized survival advantages. Medallists in endurance sports and mixed sports had a larger survival advantage over controls at 30 years (1.13, 1.09 to 1.17; 1.11, 1.09 to 1.13) than that of medallists in power sports (1.05, 1.01 to 1.08).

Conclusions Olympic medallists live longer than the general population, irrespective of country, medal, or sport. This study was not designed to explain this effect, but possible explanations include genetic factors, physical activity, healthy lifestyle, and the wealth and status that come with international sporting glory.

The discussion is remarkably mundane and offers little insight into anything:

One explanation is that athletes are much healthier than the average person. Part of this advantage could be genetic, but environmental factors undoubtedly amplify genetic advantages. Young athletes who exhibit exceptional physical talents are often selected into national training squads to undergo intensive physical training over many years. Most Olympic medallists will have come through such programmes.

Strong evidence indicates that physical activity confers many health benefits, including improved functional health status and reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancer ………

Ah well! One more publication to add to the list.

Maths paper “which makes no sense mathematically” first published and then retracted

December 6, 2012

Acharya Sennimalai Kalimuthu strikes again! And Elsevier as publishers do look like idiots.

Back in April I posted about a paper by Kalimuthu which was first published in Computers & Mathematics with Applications and then retracted because it “lacked scientific content”.

This time he managed to get a paper published in Applied Mathematics Letters

For the origin of new geometry, by S. Kalimuthu, 2/394, Kanjampatti P.O., Pollachi Via, Tamil Nadu 642003, India.,

 He has 12 references – all self-citations. The paper has now been retracted because it “makes no sense mathematically”. The title itself should have been a give-away but the paper was published in December 2010 and it has taken 2 years to be retracted.

This paper does not meet the minimum research and mathematical standards of Applied Mathematics Letters; for example, some of this paper’s constructions and arguments make no sense mathematically. Though handled by the previous editorial office, the available records lead us to believe its publication was the result of an administrative oversight and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected earlier.

In both cases Elsevier was the unfortunate publisher. This does not say much for the “peer-review” process at Elsevier which allowed such rubbish to be published. First I wondered if Kalimuthu might be an unrecognised genius until I read his two papers. You do not need to be an advanced mathematician to appreciate the absurdities. His two papers are

Sivasubramanian and Kalimuthu

kalimuthu 2

After the 5th reading of his second paper I managed to figure out the central claim:

Our constructions and proofs are consistent. We have not introduced any new hypothesis in this work. . ….. But we have pointed out in the abstract that the fifth Euclidean postulate problem is one of the most famous mathematical impossibilities. So, although our finding is consistent, it poses a very serious question about the foundations of geometry.

… we have obtained a challenging result, namely the smaller side of triangle AHJ is equal to the larger side BC of triangle ABC. This is a problematic problem.

Further studies will certainly unlock this mathematical mystery.

No doubt the further studies will be first published and then retracted by Elsevier.

Retraction Watch covers the story and actually took the time to write to Kalimuthu for his comments on the retraction. His reply will surely go down as a classic:

“Please and please note that I do NOT agree with retraction of this relevant paper.Can you tell me WHAT IS THE FLAW? AND WHERE IS THE FLAW? A result is a result, A result is a result, A result is a result, and A result is a result,.Let us recall what Einstein told about simplicity: IF YOU CAN NOT PUT YOUR IDEA IN SIMPLE, IT SHOWS THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW THE SUBJECT. Who is expert? We are all so called experts. Only God is expert. I am going to re write this particular paper in 20 long pages and get published. Kindly note that papers rejected by referees and editors have won the NOBEL PRIZE.”

But what on earth was Elsevier playing at to publish such drivel.

Once was bad enough but twice???

Either Kalimuthu has some kind of genius in being able to get papers without scientific content and which make no mathematical sense published or the Elsevier peer-review process is a farce.

Science and advocacy do not mix (the “Greenpeace syndrome”?)

December 4, 2012

It is not the first time that “activists” have turned to dubious and manipulated science to further their cause. And it will not be the last. The peer-review process which is supposed to catch this kind of politically motivated pseudoscience is often not capable of doing so – and certainly not when the purported science is presented in a stage manged  PR exercise. Anything published by an advocacy group may – sometimes – contain some science but – and it should be axiomatic – no advocacy report is ever science.

In this case a “scientist” – Gilles-Eric Seralini – who is also a well-known activist campaigning against GM crops managed to get the reputed Elsevier Food and Chemical Toxicology journal to publish some highly dubious results that genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats. Seralini is also known for making up honors or paying for them to be awarded to himself! Perhaps this should be called the “Greenpeace syndrome”. Greenpeace is not averse either to making up science to further their political goals. (In fact Greenpeace just today published another apparently independent study in favour of wind power but which they had themselves commissioned!)

Reuters reports today that

(Reuters) – The publisher of a much-criticized study suggesting genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats has come under heavy pressure from scientists to retract the paper and explain why it was ever printed.


Reducing sulphur emissions caused post-1970 global warming!!!!

July 5, 2011

Whether warming or cooling it would seem that anthropogenic effects and man’s burning of coal is responsible.

“The post 1970 period of warming, which constitutes a significant portion of the increase in global surface temperature since the mid 20th century, is driven by efforts to reduce air pollution in general and acid deposition in particular”.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper from the “peer-reviewed” literature confirming the obvious that global temperatures have plateaued since 1998.

Reconciling anthropogenic climate change with observed temperature 1998–2008

Robert K. Kaufmann, Heikki Kauppi, Michael L. Mann, James, H. Stock

pnas. 201102467


And though the paper cuts off  data in 2008 this temperature stability certainly continues till 2010 and it seems – on my own empirical observations  – even in 2011.

As the paper title shows this real stabilisation of temperatures which is not predicted by any climate model and which may well be a precursor of a few decades of global cooling is of some concern to the Anthropogenic Global Warming enthusiasts. The presumption is that the model results are supreme and that reality must be reconciled by invoking further anthropogenic effects.

Needless to say any global cooling is not acknowledged since that would be heretical and instead short-term anthropogenic factors (sulphur emissions from coal burning in China)  are blamed for this cessation of global warming!!

Given the widely noted increase in the warming effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations, it has been unclear why global surface temperatures did not rise between 1998 and 2008. We find that this hiatus in warming coincides with a period of little increase in the sum of anthropogenic and natural forcings. Declining solar insolation as part of a normal eleven-year cycle, and a cyclical change from an El Nino to a La Nina dominate our measure of anthropogenic effects because rapid growth in short-lived sulfur emissions partially offsets rising greenhouse gas concentrations. As such, we find that recent global temperature records are consistent with the existing understanding of the relationship among global surface temperature, internal variability, and radiative forcing, which includes anthropogenic factors with well known warming and cooling effects.

The conclusion is formulated to avoid any semblance of heresy and to ensure publication no doubt.

The finding that the recent hiatus in warming is driven largely by natural factors does
not contradict the hypothesis: “most of the observed increase in global  average temperature since the mid 20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations (14)”. As indicated in Figure 1, anthropogenic activities that warm and cool the planet largely cancel after 1998, which allows natural variables to play a more significant role. ……   

The post 1970 period of warming, which constitutes a significant portion of the increase in global surface temperature since the mid 20th century, is driven by efforts to reduce air pollution in general and acid deposition in particular, which cause sulfur emissions to decline while the concentration of greenhouse gases continues to rise. 

That reality is being acknowledged is heartening but relying on the anthropogenic effects effects of coal burning alone (carbon dioxide emissions causing warming and sulphur emissions causing cooling) with only a passing reference to solar effects is not just naive – it is denying the obvious.


Another perversion of science: Confirmation bias in the name of global warming dogma is also scientific misconduct

January 25, 2011

A new paper has been published in Ecology Letters

Ran Nathan, Nir Horvitz, Yanping He, Anna Kuparinen, Frank M. Schurr, Gabriel G. Katul. Spread of North American wind-dispersed trees in future environmentsEcology Letters, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01573.

In this paper the authors have assumed that climate change will cause changes to CO2 concentration and wind speed. They have assumed also that increased CO2 will “increase fecundity and advance maturation”. They have then modelled the spread of 12 species as a function of wind speed.

So far so good – they have actually modelled only the effect of wind speed  which they assume will reduce due to climate change.

Their results basically showed no effect of wind speed:

“Future spread is predicted to be faster if atmospheric CO2 enrichment would increase fecundity and advance maturation, irrespective of the projected changes in mean surface windspeed”.

And now comes the perversion!

From their fundamental conclusion that wind speed has no effect and that therefore any CO2 increase resulting from climate change will enhance the spread of the trees, they invoke “expected” effects to deny what they have just shown:

“Yet, for only a few species, predicted wind-driven spread will match future climate changes, conditioned on seed abscission occurring only in strong winds and environmental conditions favouring high survival of the farthest-dispersed seeds. Because such conditions are unlikely, North American wind-dispersed trees are expected to lag behind the projected climate range shift.”

This final conclusion is based on absolutely nothing  and their modelling showed nothing and yet this paper was accepted for publication. I have no problem that a result showing “no effect of wind speed” be published but suspect that it needed the nonsense, speculative conclusion to comply with current dogma.

Science Daily then produces the headline: Climate Change Threatens Many Tree Species

when the reality is

This study Shows No Effect of Wind Speed But Yet We Believe that Climate Change Threatens Many Tree Species

“Our research indicates that the natural wind-driven spread of many species of trees will increase, but will occur at a significantly lower pace than that which will be required to cope with the changes in surface temperature,” said Prof. Nathan. “This will raise extinction risk of many tree populations because they will not be able to track the shift in their natural habitats which currently supply them with favorable conditions for establishment and reproduction. As a result, the composition of different tree species in future forests is expected to change and their areas might be reduced, the goods and services that these forests provide for man might be harmed, and wide-ranging steps will have to be taken to ensure seed dispersal in a controlled, directed manner.”

Whether the perversion is by the authors themselves anticipating what is needed to get a paper published or whether it is due to pressure from the Journal Ecology Letters or by their referees is unclear.


Despite ample research, understanding plant spread and predicting their ability to track projected climate changes remain a formidable challenge to be confronted. We modelled the spread of North American wind-dispersed trees in current and future (c. 2060) conditions, accounting for variation in 10 key dispersal, demographic and environmental factors affecting population spread. Predicted spread rates vary substantially among 12 study species, primarily due to inter-specific variation in maturation age, fecundity and seed terminal velocity. Future spread is predicted to be faster if atmospheric CO2 enrichment would increase fecundity and advance maturation, irrespective of the projected changes in mean surface windspeed. Yet, for only a few species, predicted wind-driven spread will match future climate changes, conditioned on seed abscission occurring only in strong winds and environmental conditions favouring high survival of the farthest-dispersed seeds. Because such conditions are unlikely, North American wind-dispersed trees are expected to lag behind the projected climate range shift.

In essence this paper is only based on belief and the results actually obtained are denied. It seems to me that denying or twisting or “moulding” results actually obtained to fit pre-conceived notions is not just a case of confirmation bias but comes very close to scientific misconduct.

Drawing the line between science and faith

January 9, 2011

Steve McIntyre takes up another case of  somebody publishing a paper but refusing access to the data the paper is said to be based on at

I have always found my simple and absolutely reliable demarcator between science and faith as being the words ” I believe that….”. The moment any statement is a matter of  “belief” rather than ” a conclusion drawn from the evidence” it becomes a matter of faith rather than of  “science”.

The moment an author cannot – for whatever reason – provide the data he has used then he is asking the reader to rely on “faith” or “trust” that the data does exist and is not faked or imagined or invented. For the reader the matter immediately descends to becoming a question of “belief” in the author if nothing else. And the author is surely not God to command an unquestioning belief.

  • Whenever an author refuses access to his data he reduces his own conclusions from being matters of science to becoming matters of “faith”.
  • When such a paper is said to be peer-reviewed then it reduces the group of peers to be little more than the acolytes to a faith.
  • When a journal publishes a paper without insisting that the data be archived and accessible then it reduces the journal in which the paper is being published to being no more than the parish magazine for a cult.

Belated action on scientific misconduct in India

November 18, 2010

The Calcutta Telegraph carries the sordid story of scientific fraud, establishment denial, paper retractions and finally establishment acceptance of the misconduct.

The Gopal Kundu controversy

A controversy erupted in National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune in 2006 when an anonymous mail alleged that the authors (H. Rangaswami and Colleagues from the group of Dr. Gopal Kundu) may have misrepresented data in a paper published in Journal of Biological Chemistry. The allegation was that they had rehashed the same set of data which they had published earlier. An internal committee of the NCCS advised the authors to take back their paper, however an independent committee led by G. Padmanabhan, a former director of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, concluded that there was no manipulation in the data. This led to some heated debate between Indian Scientists with several viewpoints being presented. On 23 February 2007, the Journal of Biological Chemistry withdrew the paper amid allegations of data manipulation. The authors still maintain that the two papers used different set of data though similar experiments.

However the panel set up was not as independent as claimed. Its members were chosen by the Government and – as often when things get politicised in India – they returned a “politically correct” white-wash. But now as The Telegraph reports:

An apex association of Indian scientists today debarred for three years a senior biologist who had been accused of plagiarism by international scientific journals three years ago but was exonerated by a government panel of top scientists.

The unprecedented action by the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences, after an internal investigation by its ethics committee, appears to vindicate claims by some scientists that the government-appointed panel had tried to shield the accused.

At its annual meeting in Goa today, the academy endorsed the decision by its ethics committee (which was accepted by the academy’s council in July) and barred Gopal Kundu from participating in the academy’s activities for three years, beginning August 2010.

Nor can Kundu, a research scientist at Pune’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), propose any candidates for fellowship of the academy during this period.

The prestigious US-based Journal of Biological Chemistry(JBC) had in February 2007 withdrawn a research paper by Kundu, accusing him of reusing images he had published in an earlier paper.

Another journal, Glycoconjugates Journal, too, had withdrawn a paper by Kundu because it had substantial similarities with a paper he had himself published previously in the JBC.

Better late than never but what is more important is the relatively low value given to ethics by the scientific establishment. Ethics, misconduct and scientific rigour can always be trumped by political correctness. Rahul Siddharthan writes in his excellent post:

An internal investigation at Kundu’s institution found him guilty of misrepresenting data, but a subsequent investigation by an external committee of six eminent scientists exonerated him completely, declaring themselves entirely satisfied that the images, though visually similar, were “indeed different.” I subsequently made my own analysis and published it in Current Science, who followed it with a response from G Padmanaban, the head of the committee that exonerated Kundu.


To me, this case is not really about Kundu. It is about our complete lack of appreciation of scientific ethics, and our tendency to “close ranks” when trouble arrives. To succumb to this tendency even after an international journal has conducted its own investigation and made its own decision, and to justify it with a paltry two-page report, merely makes us a laughing-stock.

So it is a good thing that the Academy has, belatedly, tried to correct this.

Researchers show that peer review is easily corrupted

September 18, 2010
PhysicsWorld reports on a new paper:
Peer-review in a world with rational scientists: Toward selection of the average
by Stefan Thurner and Rudolf Hanel
1Section of Science of Complex Systems, Medical University of Vienna, Spitalgasse 23, A-1090, Austria

Just a small number of bad referees can significantly undermine the ability of the peer-review system to select the best scientific papers… Scholarly peer review is the commonly accepted procedure for assessing the quality of research before it is published in academic journals. It relies on a community of experts within a narrow field of expertise to have both the knowledge and the time to provide comprehensive reviews of academic manuscripts.Stefan Thurner and Rudolf Hanel at the Medical University of Vienna created a model of a generic specialist field where referees, selected at random, can fall into one of five categories. There are the “correct” who accept the good papers and reject the bad. There are the “altruists” and the “misanthropists”, who accept or reject all papers respectively. Then there are the “rational”, who reject papers that might draw attention away from their own work. And finally, there are the “random” who are not qualified to judge the quality of a paper because of incompetence or lack of time.Within this model community, the quality of scientists is assumed to follow a Gaussian distribution where each scientist produces one new paper every two time-units, the quality reflecting an author’s ability. At every step in the model, each new paper is passed to two referees chosen at random from the community, with self-review excluded, with a reviewer being allowed to either accept or reject the paper. The paper is published if both reviewers approve the paper, and rejected if they both do not like it. If the reviewers are divided, the paper gets accepted with a probability of 0.5.

Peer review gauntlet

Thurner and Hanel find that even a small presence of rational or random referees can significantly reduce the quality of published papers. Daniel Kennefick, a cosmologist at the University of Arkansas with a special interest in sociology, believes that the study exposes the vulnerability of peer review when referees are not accountable for their decisions.

Kennefick feels that the current system also encourages scientists to publish findings that may not offer much of an advance. “Many authors are nowadays determined to achieve publication for publication’s sake, in an effort to secure an academic position and are not particularly swayed by the argument that it is in their own interests not to publish an incorrect article.”

(This could have been written about Marc Hauser —

But Tim Smith, senior publisher for New Journal of Physics feels that the study overlooks the role of journal editors. “Peer-review is certainly not flawless and alternatives to the current process will continue to be proposed. In relation to this study however, one shouldn’t ignore the role played by journal editors and Boards in accounting for potential conflicts of interest, and preserving the integrity of the referee selection and decision-making processes,” he says.

In fact Journal Editors have much to answer for in the perversion of the peer review process which was revealed by Climategate. (The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montfordreviewed here)

Thurner argues that science would benefit from the creation of a “market for scientific work”. He envisages a situation where journal editors and their “scouts” search preprint servers for the most innovative papers before approaching authors with an offer of publication. The best papers, he believes, would naturally be picked up by a number of editors leaving it up to authors to choose their journal. “Papers that no-one wants to publish remain on the server and are open to everyone – but without the ‘prestigious’ quality stamp of a journal,” Thurner explains.

When reviewers show bias (in acceptance or in rejection) or misuse and hide behind the cloak of anonymity and are not required to be accountable then Hausergate and Climategate become inevitable.

Oliver Manuel comments: The most basic problem with ANONYMOUS peer-review is this: “That methodology is flawed and those flaws have been gradually undermining, corrupting, and trivializing American science for decades.” Anonymous peer review of papers and proposals has been steadily “undermining, corrupting, and trivializing American science” since I started my research career in 1960.

The evolution of peer review with the use of open servers in now overdue but is beginning.

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