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Education

What’s Wrong with the Peer-Review System

The peer-review system for deciding what scientific research gets published and what doesn’t used to work pretty well, but like so much in academia, is now in trouble.

In this Martin Center article, Duke University neuroscience professor John Staddon reflects on the changes.

For one thing, researchers now spend up to half of their time just writing grant proposals, the large majority of which are rejected.

For another, the career need to get papers published has led to a vast proliferation of journals, many of them bogus. Staddon writes:

A growing list of what I call “pop-up” journals has arisen to meet the need for publication. I get email invitations to publish in, or even to edit, such a journal almost once a week. Here is one, headed “Invitation to Join Editorial Board:”

I represent EnPress Publisher Editorial Office from USA. We have come across your recent article “Daniel T. Cerutti (1956–2010)” published in The Behavior Analyst. We feel that the topic of the article is very interesting. Therefore, we are delighted to invite you to publish your work in our journal, entitled Global Finance Review. We also hope that you can join our Editorial Board . . . 

The article that so piqued the respondent’s interest was an obituary for a much-loved younger colleague. His research had nothing whatever to do with finance. The invitation comes from a bot, not a human being.

Another, more serious problem, in Staddon’s opinion is that peer review tends to favor established views in science, at the expense of unconventional ones. He continues:

The tougher problem is that journal reviewers may reinforce a kind of scientific establishment. In a Times Higher Ed article titled “Scientific Peer Review: an Ineffective and Unworthy Institution” the authors comment:

[P]eer review is self-evidently useful in protecting established paradigms and disadvantaging challenges to entrenched scientific authority . . . by controlling access to publication in the most prestigious [peer review] journals helps to maintain the clearly recognised hierarchies of journals, of researchers, and of universities and research institutes.

Undoubtedly, advocates of an established paradigm have an edge in gaining access to a prestigious journal. Proponents of intelligent design will certainly encounter resistance if they try to publish in Evolution, for example. If most scientists believe “X” to be true, it will take a lot to convince them of “not-X”. This is inevitable, but perhaps the process has gone too far?”

A good illustration of the problem (although Staddon doesn’t mention it), is environmental science, where the entrenched view is that we face imminent disaster and must act. Researchers who don’t follow that line will have a very hard time getting published.

In a follow-up piece Friday, Staddon will go into ideas for reform.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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