Saturday, May 03, 2014

The myth of academic peer review

The peer review process in the world of academic publishing.  The process by which, it is assumed, peers of an academic field review peers in that field.  The situation is fraught with meddling and distortion.  Blind review is truly blind – reviewers often fail to read their allocated papers in full.  Then come other issues: editorial limitations, concerns about timing, topicality and vested interests. Ever was the ivory tower shut from full view and inspection.
The peer review system also foists upon its readers a fundamental paradox: the good may well be rejected; the poor might well be accepted.  Capture the intellectual fashion of the moment and the editorial board will be won over.
Some of the best research in history has not found its way into the technocratic drivel of refereed literature.  The Stakhanovites that preside over academic institutions these days would have been puzzled to confront such publications as Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  In the US Supreme Court decision of Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993), it was held that, “Publication (which is but one element of peer review) is not a sine qua non of admissibility; it does not necessarily correlate with reliability, and in some instances well-grounded but innovative theories will not have been published.”
Little wonder then that cell biologist and Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman of the University of California Berkeley, is fed up.  Having won this year’s prize in medicine, he has proclaimed an academic boycott of the holy trinity of science publishing.  “I am a scientist.  Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity.  But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives.”  Such incentives, argues Schekman in The Guardian (Dec 9),[1] come in the form of “professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly, NatureCell and Science.”


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