Peer review

It is no secret that the system of peer review that is supposed to keep the progress of science on the straight and narrow is badly broken. This isn’t a new problem, although it certainly appears to be worse now than it was a few decades ago, but it is almost as old as the history of science itself. It is in essence one of those “unconscious bias” problems. Unconscious biases against the non-male or the non-white are not the only ways in which peer review exerts a malign influence on the progress of science. Unconscious bias against the innovative is equally culpable.

Ask any individual peer-reviewer, and they will deny any such bias. But it is an established fact that is proved in the aggregate. Research Councils in the UK woke up to the fact many years ago, when they realised that they were funding only safe, predictable and boring research, and the exciting and innovative stuff was no longer happening. They reacted by forcing their reviewers to evaluate innovation and speculation as positive rather than negative. But it hasn’t had enough of an effect, and it hasn’t had any effect on universities, which stifle creative innovation coming from below, and impose stultifying “innovation” from above.

Another demonstrable unconscious bias of peer review is a bias against interdisciplinary research of all kinds. This is effectively a bias of peer reviewers against all disciplines other than their own. Research Councils and other research funders have to react by specifically diverting funds into interdisciplinary research. But these funds are often not taken up, because interdisciplinary scientists are squeezed out of their jobs by the insidious effects of peer review within universities. I know this from personal experience – by 2014 I had moved whole-heartedly into an interdisciplinary area between mathematics and physics – and within three years, my academic career was at an end. I am not alone – this is a generic problem for interdisciplinary research, caused by the mechanisms of peer review, and needs to be addressed at a fundamental level.

Truly innovative thinkers are always discriminated against in academia, which is heavily biased in favour of the status quo, and likes a comfortable existence. Anyone who threatens to rock the boat in any way is punished, often by being thrown out of the boat and left to drown. New ideas are only allowed to come from the top, never from the bottom.

The worst part of peer review, however, happens not in research funding bodies or universities, but in journals. Journals have ceased to be a vehicle for dissemination of ideas, as they once were, and have become a vehicle for profit and status. They still use what they call “peer review”, which is a form of slave labour in which academics provide their work for free to keep the journals making profits. Peer reviewers often take their revenge by writing shoddy, ill-informed reports in which their unconscious (or conscious) biases have free reign to do their worst, under cover of anonymity.

I know this, because I have just received such a report. The reviewer bases their recommendation on the assumption that the paragraphs labelled “Speculative remark” in my paper form the “main point”. Now the universal convention in the scientific literature is that paragraphs labelled “Remark” are peripheral to the main text, and can be omitted without damage to the main arguments. They never form the “main point” of anything. The journal was the Journal of Mathematical Physics, the editors of which ignored these grounds on which I submitted an appeal, and simply repeated the insulting and untrue comments of the reviewer.

Unfortunately, taking time to read a scientific paper properly, to understand what it says and critique it fairly, is something that no academic these days can afford to do – there simply isn’t time, and there is no credit to be gained from it. So academics have largely given up doing it, and resort to quick short-cuts that make the unconscious bias problem much worse than it used to be. As a result, peer review no longer works. It is a system that is no longer fit for purpose, and must be abandoned if scientific progress is to resume.

Peer review creates large herds of scientists who are unwilling or unable to think for themselves. Real progress in science relies on the lone wolf who thinks outside the box. The wolf is extinct in the UK, and progress in science is going the same way.


6 Responses to “Peer review”

  1. Mark Thomas Says:

    Even with a good theory (paradigm shifting) being accepted through peer review it’s possible that the hardened establishment will ignore it. They have a lot of stake in their careers and institutions and do not want to accept their pathways may be outdated or wrong. I seem to recall that Max Planck intervened on behalf of Einstein to promote the new theory of GR. Otherwise, Einstein’s jewishness might have slowed acceptance of the right theory at the time. Cornell’s preprint archive in the theory section has new preprints everyday which start with foundational PhD stuff that suggests that they are knowledgeable about what is going to be presented but then trails off into sometimes fashionable and very speculative weirdness. Ninety plus percent of these preprints will go to the dustbin.

  2. Mark Thomas Says:

    A majorana particle paper has been retracted from Science (journal) but not before it received 400 cites.

    • Robert A. Wilson Says:

      An interesting point in the comments to that link is the allegation that an editor of a major physics journal vetoed publication of a paper that was critical of his own work. Whether this allegation is true or not in this particular case, I have no doubt that this behaviour happens frequently.

  3. Mark Thomas Says:

    Here is a site that looks at problems with papers including editing.

  4. MarkThomas Says:

    A very interesting discussion. Part one is available as a pdf.

    • Robert A. Wilson Says:

      Yes, very interesting. They make many of the same points that I make, with much greater authority. If, as they say, the current system would reject Einstein’s best papers, then the system is very badly broken.

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