Turning Peer Review into Modern Scripture

By Frank Furedi

The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, has acknowledged that it made a serious error in publishing a study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease. Earlier this month, a group of leading stem cell researchers wrote an open letter pointing out the systematic abuse of peer review by a small cabal of scientists, whom they accuse of using their position to slow down the publication of the findings of their competitors.

Then there is the scandal surrounding the leaked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England, and the dubious data published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which further exposes a worrying trend towards the corruption of peer review.

Peer review is a system that subjects scientific and scholarly work to the scrutiny of other experts in the field. Ideally it ensures that research is only approved or published when it meets the standards of scientific rigour and its findings are sound. At its best, peer review guarantees that it is disinterested science which informs public discussion and debate. When established through peer review, the authority of science helps to clarify disputes and injects into public discussion the latest findings and research. Peer reviewing depends on a community of experts who are competent and committed to impartiality. It depends on the commitment and collaboration of scientists and scholars in a given field.

However, the individuals who constitute a ‘community of experts’ also tend to be preoccupied with their own personal position and status. Often, the colleagues they are reviewing and refereeing are their competitors and sometimes even their bitter rivals. The contradiction between working as a member of an expert community and one’s own personal interests cannot always be satisfactorily resolved.

Unfortunately, even with the best will in the world, peer reviewing is rarely an entirely disinterested process. All too often the system of peer review is infused with vested interests. As many of my colleagues in academia know, peer reviewing is frequently carried out through a kind of mates’ club, between friends and acquaintances, and all too often the question of who gets published and who gets rejected is determined by who you know and where you stand in a particular academic debate.

Peer reviewing cannot remain immune to the preoccupations, agenda and interests of the individuals who carry it out. Even when they have the best intentions, academics and scientists can overlook errors and become blind to the importance of a new but maverick contribution. They are ordinary mortals who have their fair share of prejudices, and are often no less petty or self-centred than other people can sometimes be. Nevertheless, peer reviewing has traditionally, at least, been the most effective way of exercising quality control over the proposals and output of the scholarly and scientific communities.


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