Is peer review a good thing?

Everyone knows peer review is a good thing for science. It's almost what makes it science: papers are critically examined by scientists and so only (or mostly) the good stuff get published, or at least errors are generally corrected in the process. Of course no system is perfect, but it certainly raises the quality of science.

Well for someone interested in epistemology like myself, this is quite interesting. Here are a bunch of scientists, possibly most scientists, who are claiming that the claims of their fellow scientists should be scrutinized for adequate empirical evidence (especially p-values !) and filtered so as to improve the quality of science. And how about that claim? Is it backed up by any empirical evidence?

So the situation is interesting, because the widespread belief in peer review is purely theoretical and based on no evidence at all. Sounds a bit like the liar paradox! Some people have looked for evidence though, but as far as I know what they found is mostly negative evidence (see for example Smith (2010), Classical peer review: an empty gun).

What is peer review meant to be good for?

  1. to remove errors (verification);
  2. to identify the most significant work and increase their visibility (publicity);
  3. to give proper credit to good work (a label of quality used for grant applications and careers).
  4. to scare scientists into producing better papers (prevention).

1) We all know that any study can be published, whether it's flawed or not, significant or not. There are just so many journals that it ought to get published somewhere. We also know that errors also often get into most visible journals. Why wouldn't they? Whether prestigious or not, the journal still relies on a couple of scientists giving an opinion on a paper. Private peer-review is constitutively incapable of spotting errors. If the paper is not selected by the peers, no one will ever know those errors, which will be published in another journal. A more useful alternative would be that scientists who spot errors or disagree with the interpretations publicly write their comments under their name, to which the authors can respond, all of this linked to the original publication. If this were constitutive of the publication process, it could perhaps be done in a civilized way (as opposed to the occasional angry letters of the editor).

2) In the most prestigious journals, the selection is not done by peers anyway. So the publicity argument doesn't work. More importantly, there appears to be no reason to apply this editorial filter before peer review. Since the paper is going to be peer reviewed anyway, why not do an editorial selection afterwards? This would then take the form of a reader's digest. Editorial boards could invite selected authors to write a shortened version of their work, for example. One could imagine many methods of increasing the visibility of selected papers, which do not need to be centralized by journals. For example, each scientist could make a selection of papers he liked most; someone who values the choices of that scientist could then have a look. An organized online social network might do the job.

3) My feeling is that this is what scientists are actually expecting of the peer-review system: credit. That is, to identify the best scientists out there. Careers are made and grants are distributed based on the outcomes of the publication system. Note: those are not based on peer review itself (in particular on the criticisms that may have been raised in the process), but on which peer-reviewed journal the paper lands in. So it's actually not exactly based on peer-review, since as noted above the most stringent filters are not applied by peers but by editors. But in any case, if what we are expecting of this process is a “label of quality”, then there appears to be no reason why it should be applied before publication rather than after, and that could be done as outlined above.

4) I think the only vaguely valuable argument in favor of pre-publication peer review is that it influences the way scientists write their papers. In particular, one might argue that even though peer review does not do a great job at spotting errors, it may nevertheless reduce the flaws in publications by its preventive action: scientists are more careful because they want their paper published. This might be true, but why would it be different if peers commented on the paper after publication? I would actually think that the opposite should be true: to spot flaws in the private circle of journals and peer reviewers is not so bad for one's reputation as spotting flaws in the public sphere.

So what is the conclusion? My feeling is that the current peer review system is based on an outdated publication system, with printed journals having to make a selection of papers for economical reasons. Now that publication is actually not the limiting factor anymore (e.g. you can publish on arxiv), there appears to be no reason to apply filters before publication. Papers could be reviewed, commented and selected by scientific communities, after online publication. This would save a lot of effort and money, produce a richer scientific debate and possibly reduce some biases.

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