Skip to comments.Is Peer Review Broken?
Posted on 02/14/2006 9:18:41 PM PST by AndrewC
Submissions are up, reviewers are overtaxed, and authors are lodging complaint after complaint about the process at top-tier journals. What's wrong with peer review?
Peter Lawrence, a developmental biologist who is also an editor at the journal Development and former editorial board member at Cell, has been publishing papers in academic journals for 40 years. His first 70 or so papers were "never rejected," he says, but that's all changed. Now, he has significantly more trouble getting articles into the first journal he submits them to.
"The rising [rejections] means an increase in angry authors."
Lawrence, based at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, UK, says his earlier papers were always published because he and his colleagues first submitted them to the journals they believed were most appropriate for the work. Now, because of the intense pressure to get into a handful of top journals, instead of sending less-than-groundbreaking work to second- or third-tier journals, more scientists are first sending their work to elite publications, where they often clearly don't belong.
Consequently, across the board, editors at top-tier journals say they are receiving more submissions every year, leading in many cases to more rejections, appeals, and complaints about the system overall. "We reject approximately 6,000 papers per year" before peer review, and submissions are steadily increasing, says Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science. "There's a lot of potential for complaints."
Everyone, it seems, has a problem with peer review at top-tier journals. The recent discrediting of stem cell work by Woo-Suk Hwang at Seoul National University sparked media debates about the system's failure to detect fraud. Authors, meanwhile, are lodging a range of complaints: Reviewers sabotage papers that compete with their own, strong papers are sent to sister journals to boost their profiles, and editors at commercial journals are too young and invariably make mistakes about which papers to reject or accept (see Truth or Myth?). Still, even senior scientists are reluctant to give speci. c examples of being shortchanged by peer review, worrying that the move could jeopardize their future publications.
So, do those complaints stem from valid concerns, or from the minds of disgruntled scientists who know they need to publish in Science or Nature to advance in their careers? "The rising [rejections] means an increase in angry authors," says Drummond Rennie, deputy editor at Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The timing is right to take a good hard look at peer review, which, says Rennie, is "expensive, difficult, and blamed for everything."
What's wrong with the current system? What could make it better? Does it even work at all?
TOO MANY SUBMISSIONS
Editors at high-impact journals are reporting that the number of submissions is increasing every year (see "Facts and Figures", the table below). Researchers, it seems, want to get their data into a limited number of pages, sometimes taking extra measures to boost their success. Lately, academia seems to place a higher value on the quality of the journals that accept researchers' data, rather than the quality of the data itself. In many countries, scientists are judged by how many papers they have published in top-tier journals; the more publications they rack up, the more funding they receive.
Consequently, Lawrence says he believes more authors are going to desperate measures to get their results accepted by top journals. An increasing number of scientists are spending more time networking with editors, given that "it's quite hard to reject a paper by a friend of yours," says Lawrence. Overworked editors need something flashy to get their attention, and many authors are exaggerating their results, stuffing reports with findings, or stretching implications to human diseases, as those papers often rack up extra references. "I think that's happening more and more," Lawrence says. In fact, in a paper presented at the 2005 International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, a prospective review of 1,107 manuscripts submitted to the Annals of Internal Medicine, British Medical Journal (BMJ), and The Lancet in 2003 showed that many major changes to the text demanded by peer review included toning down the manuscript's conclusions and highlighting the paper's limitations. This study suggests that boosting findings may cause more problems by overburdening reviewers even further.
Indeed, sorting through hype can make a reviewer's job at a top journal even more difficult than it already is. At high-impact journals, reviewers need to judge whether a paper belongs in the top one percent of submissions from a particular field - an impossible task, says Hemai Parthasarathy, managing editor at Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology. Consequently, editors and reviewers sometimes make mistakes, she notes, perhaps publishing something that is really in the top 10%, or passing on a really strong paper. To an outsider, this pattern can look like "noise," where some relatively weak papers are accepted when others aren't, inspiring rejected authors to complain. But, it's an inevitable result of the system, she notes.
THE RELIGION OF PEER REVIEW
Despite a lack of evidence that peer review works, most scientists (by nature a skeptical lot) appear to believe in peer review. It's something that's held "absolutely sacred" in a field where people rarely accept anything with "blind faith," says Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ and now CEO of UnitedHealth Europe and board member of PLoS. "It's very unscientific, really."
Despite the number of complaints lodged at peer review, and the lack of research to show that it works, it remains a valued system, says Rennie. Scientists sigh when they're asked to review a paper, but they get upset if they're not asked, he notes. Reviewing articles is a good exercise, Rennie says, and it enables reviewers to stay abreast of what's going on. Peer review "has many imperfections, but I think it's probably the best system we've got," says Bateson.
Experts also acknowledge that peer review is hardly ever to blame when fraud is published, since thoroughly checking data could take as much time as creating it in the first place.
Many science/medical journals these days prefer to give space to political harangues, rather than research.
Let's get this party started!
I've been rejected by Science. Who do I whine to?
That's a gimme. Since your submission was not published in a peer-reviewed publication, it is not science.(that is, of course, assuming that it has not been published at all in such publications). So you whine to no one.
No. Just start a new journal.
Full Disclosure: formerly the Journal of Irreproducible Results... :-)
Try google for ignoble prizes...
As for the evidence that peer review works, all you have to do is compare what's in the scientific journals to what's on the internet as a whole.
Looks like that white coat doesn't come with a halo. Maybe scientists put their pants on one leg at a time, like the rest of us.
Peer review is pretty simple these days. If the subject agrees with the politics of the publication, it is blanketly approved. If the subject goes against the politics of the publication, it is blanketly disapproved. The facts are not really scruntinized all that much. It is the sad state of science today.
There is 'research', but the 'research' is definitely evaluated more on its political implications than on its scientific merit.
If the selection criteria is agenda based, then there is a problem. And today politics is a major driving force in what makes it to publication.
What makes you say this?
That certainly depends on the selection process. Anyway, I didn't choose the word "broken", the author did.
You don't think the politics of abortion, gay rights, and global warming don't have a major impact on what papers get published and which ones get rejected? Global Warming is probably the worst case.
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