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Peer Review and Scientific Publishing

by Andre on 15 March 2006

There’s some buzz right now about scientists going to the press with results before their findings have been peer reviewed and it’s generated some more general discussion about the role peer review should play in the process. As I’ve said before, I think the most interesting proposal I’ve heard for modifying the role of peer review in scientific communication comes from Paul Ginsparg, founder of the preprint arXiv. (see below)

Dave Munger from Cognitive Daily writes

I wonder if part of the reason it works so well in physics and math is that media-types don’t believe they have a shot at understanding the research, so it mostly stays under the radar.

I don’t think that’s right mostly because media-types do report on physics and the arXiv doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on it either way. I would like to think it’s because science reporters know better and are just waiting for the results to be peer reviewed, but I think it’s more likely that they simply rely much more heavily on university press releases and on big journals like Science and Nature for their material. My guess is that that wouldn’t change drastically if psychologists also started taking advantage of a service like the arXiv since journalists aren’t getting much from the original articles – peer reviewed or not.

In the original Seed article I linked to above, also by Dave Munger, he talks about the WS Hwang stem cell scandal in the context of peer review. Although he doesn’t explicitly state that better peer review could have averted the problem, I think it’s misleading to connect this scandal with peer review at all. As Ginsparg says in his essay:

Outsiders to the system are sometimes surprised to learn that peer-reviewed journals do not certify correctness of research results. Their somewhat weaker evaluation is that an article is a) not obviously wrong or incomplete, and b) is potentially of interest to readers in the field.

Peer review can weed our crackpots and can enhance serious research by finding methodological or theoretical flaws and suggesting more or better controls, but it isn’t even really meant to catch someone like Hwang in the act. That must rely on one of modern science’s other safety checks: reproducibility. And to be honest, I think it worked pretty well this time. It’s always a concern when a scientist, especially one doing such important and high profile work fabricates results, but the fact that people caught on and resolved the scientific parts of the scandal within two years is a pretty good turn-around if you ask me.

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