Peer Review or Poor Review? - You Decide
by Dave Smith
April 24, 2011
“If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market”
In 2008 we
published a thunderblog which highlighted some of the misgivings of peer-reviewed
science. More recently a paper has been published in a peer reviewed journal which examines and
explains many of the pitfalls of peer review. The paper titled "Classical peer review: an empty
gun" by Richard Smith is a study which is
focused on medical review but which applies to all scientific disciplines.
From Smith's study:
'If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market,' says Drummond Rennie,
deputy editor of the Journal Of the American Medical Association and intellectual
father of the international congresses of peer review that have been held every four years
since 1989. Peer review would not get onto the market because we have no convincing
evidence of its benefits but a lot of evidence of its flaws.
Much ado is made about the value of peer-review to science, yet could it be that such faith
is unwarranted? If science is about having evidence to support claims made, do we really have
any evidence to support the system which supports the sciences? It seems "No" is the only
truthful answer to that question.
[Emphasis added - DS]
Yet, to my continuing surprise, almost no scientists know anything about the evidence on
peer review. It is a process that is central to science - deciding which grant proposals will
be funded, which papers will be published, who will be promoted, and who will receive a Nobel
prize. We might thus expect that scientists, people who are trained to believe nothing until
presented with evidence, would want to know all the evidence available on this important process.
Yet not only do scientists know little about the evidence on peer review but most continue to
believe in peer review, thinking it essential for the progress of science. Ironically, a
faith based rather than an evidence based process lies at the heart of science.
... Drummond Rennie writes in what might be the greatest sentence ever published in a
medical journal: 'There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial,
no literature citation too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no
methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure,
and too contradictory, no analysis too selfserving, no argument too circular, no
conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive
for a paper to end up in print.'
One could easily be forgiven for thinking Rennie was talking about cosmology,
astrophysics, particle physics, solar physics or any other discipline which
allows conjecture and bias to trump good scientific method. In fact, if this
is the case in the medical sciences where people's lives and quality thereof
is at stake, how much more is it likely to be the case in disciplines where
the only real stakeholders are those whose qualifications and continued employment
depend on the promotion of a particular paradigm, however speculative?
We have little or no evidence that peer review 'works,' but we have lots of
evidence of its downside.
Frequently those who spend their (spare?) time touring forums and comments
threads of science "news" sites, will see demands for peer reviewed papers
to back up dissenting claims. These demands are most commonly made by those with a
close bond to the status quo or what could be termed "conventional wisdom".
This is in spite of the fact that there is little evidence of the efficacy of
the process which is supposed to vet published material.
Smith has identified five key areas within which the current peer review system
has serious issues:
Firstly, it is very expensive in terms of money and academic time. ... The Research
Information Network has calculated that the global cost of peer review is £1.9
billion . The cost in time is also enormous, and many scientists argue that time
spent peer reviewing would be better spent doing science.
Not only is the cost of the system outrageous in relation to the benefits, if any,
of it, there is also the cost to individuals who seek to have their material peer
reviewed. It can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to successfully submit a
paper for review. Whilst such costs are usually covered when one's research is
funded, independent and unaffiliated researchers are left to find the funds themselves,
often out of their own pocket, as it were. This alone creates a strong bias toward
Secondly, peer review is slow. The process regularly takes months and sometimes
years. Publication may then take many more months. A friend of mine, a fellow of
the Royal Society, has written a paper that I think very important for global
health. As I write, it is still unpublished after two years of being reviewed
by several 'top' journals. None of the reviewers have raised a major flaw with
The often unnecessary delays in publication of work can have the effect of
hampering further study related to the work. One could easily be working on
several papers at once, each to some degree riding on the successful publication
of a previous paper. If the initial research is rejected, the further work
becomes redundant. This is terribly inefficient.
Thirdly, peer review is largely a lottery. Multiple studies have shown how
if several authors are asked to review a paper, their agreement on whether
it should be published is little higher than would be expected by chance .
What justification can there be for continuing with a process which whilst
costly and slow, is also little more beneficial than rolling dice? This is
perhaps one of the most damning flaws with the system.
4. Does not detect errors!
A fourth problem with peer reviews is that it does not detect errors. At
the British Medical Journal we took a 600 word study that we were about
to publish and inserted eight errors . We then sent the paper to about
300 reviewers. The median number of errors spotted was two, and 20% of the
reviewers did not spot any. We did further studies of deliberately inserting
errors, some very major, and came up with similar results.
One of the catch-cries of those who espouse that peer reviewed papers are
the only scientifically valid sources of information is that the process
ensures 'correctness' of the research. Clearly, this is not the case.
Again it is worth mentioning that this study is based on medical peer-review,
where errors could have broad and tragic consequences. If errors are not
detected in the medical peer-review process, is it any more likely that
they would identified in other disciplines?
The fifth problem with pre-publication peer review is bias. There have
been many studies of bias - with conflicting results - but the most
famous was published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences .
The authors took 12 studies that came from prestigious institutions
that had already been published in psychology journals. They retyped
the papers, made minor changes to the titles, abstracts, and introductions
but changed the authors' names and institutions. They invented institutions
with names like the Tri-Valley Center for Human Potential. The papers were
then resubmitted to the journals that had first published them. In only
three cases did the journals realise that they had already published the paper,
and eight of the remaining nine were rejected - not because of lack of originality
but because of poor quality. The authors concluded that this was evidence of
bias against authors from less prestigious institutions. Most authors from
less prestigious institutions, particularly those in the developing world,
believe that peer review is biased against them.
Bias in peer review whilst often claimed, is frequently played down, especially
by establishment science adherents. The studies Smith cites demonstrate clearly
that peer review is biased in favor not only of establishment views, but even
more distastefully of the perceived prestige of the organization the researchers
are affiliated with.
6. Easily abused
Finally, peer review can be all too easily abused. Reviewers can steal ideas
and present them as their own or produce an unjustly harsh review to block or
at least slow down the publication of the ideas of a competitor. These have
This is perhaps the least recognized of the flaws of peer review, but in
many respects, it is possibly the most important. If publication of research
is open to being either plagiarized or blocked by a competitor, people whose
ideas are sound yet controversial will be less likely to submit their research
to peer-review. Those who do, risk their work being stolen or being discredited
without good reason.
Recently in the discipline of climate science, it was revealed that a group
of scientists not only sought to suppress dissenting work, but also to discredit
a journal in it's entirety, a clear-cut case of both bias within and abuse of
the peer-review system.
So where does this leave us? The public at large have, quite understandably,
grown suspicious of many of the sciences. One result of this is the explosion
of a plethora of web sites questioning much of what we are led to believe.
But with much information comes much disinformation and it is becoming more
difficult to draw the line between sound criticism of a popular paradigm and dissent for the sake
In his study Smith specifically refers to pre-peer-review,
or the review of papers before publication which is by far the most common route
to scientific recognition. As an answer to the problems identified above he
suggests post-peer-review may be more successful
at identifying sound science. The idea would be to allow publication of
everything (within reason) and thus allow the many hundreds of interested
scientists and publications to decide what is important, rather than just one
or two making such a decision.
This author is of the opinion that several other measures should also be
considered to help improve the current peer-review system. Reviewers
could be identified whilst authors and their affiliations retain anonymity
until publication. This would have the two-fold effect of allowing the research
to stand on it's own merits and add accountability to the reviewers. All
comments regarding a paper could be published to allow third parties to
evaluate any criticisms offered.
After all, under the current system, who reviews the reviewers?
peer review: an empty gun. Breast Cancer Research 2010, 12
doi:10.1186/bcr2742 PDF here.
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