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Can Peer Review Be Improved?

The December 15, 1986 issue of The Scientist contained an excerpt from Drummond Rennie's piece on peer review in JAMA (vol. 256, pp. 2391-2392, November 7, 1986), which included the statement "The function of peer review, then, may be to help decide not whether but where papers are published and to improve the quality of those that are accepted." This function is now performed by peer reviewers of scientific journals and granting agencies. Peer review as practiced now, however, poses a serious o

By | May 4, 1987

The December 15, 1986 issue of The Scientist contained an excerpt from Drummond Rennie's piece on peer review in JAMA (vol. 256, pp. 2391-2392, November 7, 1986), which included the statement "The function of peer review, then, may be to help decide not whether but where papers are published and to improve the quality of those that are accepted."

This function is now performed by peer reviewers of scientific journals and granting agencies. Peer review as practiced now, however, poses a serious obstacle to the advance of science.

The journal or granting agency sends the article or research proposal to "experts in the field." These are scientists who earlier may have revolted against prevalent dogma and generally accepted opinion. They became recognized as experts once their own notions (and those of their peers) became recognized as the generally accepted truth. As peer reviewers, these scientists are likely to reject notions that contradict accepted dogmas and statements of others who do not realize that "it is common knowledge that "The situation might be more perilous in granting agencies, where a new idea that can be validated only by a time-consuming series of experiments or observations is likely to be labeled by experts as a nonproductive wild goose chase.

I would like to suggest that scientific journals that send articles to three experts might help science by sending the papers to two experts and to another scientist whom I would call a "non-aligner." This reviewer should be characterized more by a courage to accept and defend unorthodox opinion than by an expertise in the field. In other words, the expert should be the type who, although knowing that the Earth is firm and that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, is ready to stand up for the notion that the Earth revolves around itself and around the Sun.

I vividly remember how one of the great editors of our century, the late Theodore Fox of Lancet published in the forties an article by a Spanish refugee scientist proposing the erroneous notion that erythrocytes are derived from the granules of eosinophklic leukocytes. A good editor, in my opinion, should have the courage to publish questionable suggestions. A good granting agency should also support research that is based on approaches that are not in vogue or "modern."

Some non-aligners might be found among scientists who followed changes in accepted notions and dogmas over the years. Others might be found among young scientists who are intellectually honest and fearless—persons ready to fight for their convictions.

—Moshe Wolman
Dept. of Pathology
Sackler School of Medicine
Tel Aviv University
Tel Aviv 69978 Israel

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