The Rise and Fall of Peer Review

Adam Mastroianni has written a marvelous article at his substack, Experimental History, evaluating the history, the function and the misfunction of the peer review process.

For the last 60 years or so, science has been running an experiment on itself. The experimental design wasn’t great; there was no randomization and no control group. Nobody was in charge, exactly, and nobody was really taking consistent measurements. And yet it was the most massive experiment ever run, and it included every scientist on Earth.

Most of those folks didn’t even realize they were in an experiment. Many of them, including me, weren’t born when the experiment started. If we had noticed what was going on, maybe we would have demanded a basic level of scientific rigor. Maybe nobody objected because the hypothesis seemed so obviously true: science will be better off if we have someone check every paper and reject the ones that don’t pass muster. They called it “peer review.”

This was a massive change. From antiquity to modernity, scientists wrote letters and circulated monographs, and the main barriers stopping them from communicating their findings were the cost of paper, postage, or a printing press, or on rare occasions, the cost of a visit from the Catholic Church. Scientific journals appeared in the 1600s, but they operated more like magazines or newsletters, and their processes of picking articles ranged from “we print whatever we get” to “the editor asks his friend what he thinks” to “the whole society votes.” Sometimes journals couldn’t get enough papers to publish, so editors had to go around begging their friends to submit manuscripts, or fill the space themselves. Scientific publishing remained a hodgepodge for centuries.

https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/the-rise-and-fall-of-peer-review

It is an exceptional essay which helps to explain much of what is occurring in “science” and academia.

Here is a list of his section titles and some excerpts.

A WHOLE LOTTA MONEY FOR NOTHIN’

POSTMORTEM

If reviewers were doing their job, we’d hear lots of stories like “Professor Cornelius von Fraud was fired today after trying to submit a fake paper to a scientific journal.” But we never hear stories like that. 

PEER REVIEW, WE HARDLY TOOK YE SERIOUSLY

CAN WE FIX IT? NO WE CAN’T

Making peer review harsher would also exacerbate the worst problem of all: just knowing that your ideas won’t count for anything unless peer reviewers like them makes you worse at thinking. 

PEER REVIEW IS WORSE THAN NOTHING; OR, WHY IT AIN’T ENOUGH TO SNIFF THE BEEF

Peer review doesn’t work and there’s probably no way to fix it. But a little bit of vetting is better than none at all, right?

I say: no way. 

SCIENCE MUST BE FREE

HOORAY WE FAILED

Nobody was in charge of our peer review experiment, which means nobody has the responsibility of saying when it’s over. Seeing no one else, I guess I’ll do it: 

After this discussion he explains:

What should we do now? Well, last month I published a paper, by which I mean I uploaded a PDF to the internet. I wrote it in normal language so anyone could understand it. I held nothing back—I even admitted that I forgot why I ran one of the studies. I put jokes in it because nobody could tell me not to. I uploaded all the materials, data, and code where everybody could see them. I figured I’d look like a total dummy and nobody would pay any attention, but at least I was having fun and doing what I thought was right.

Then, before I even told anyone about the paper, thousands of people found it, commented on it, and retweeted it. 

https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/the-rise-and-fall-of-peer-review

Total strangers emailed me thoughtful reviews. Tenured professors sent me ideas. NPR asked for an interview. The paper now has more views than the last peer-reviewed paper I published, which was in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And I have a hunch far more people read this new paper all the way to the end, because the final few paragraphs got a lot of comments in particular. So I dunno, I guess that seems like a good way of doing it?

https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/the-rise-and-fall-of-peer-review

The essay is fantastic and deserving of a read, perhaps even a subscription.

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January 2, 2023 at 08:48AM

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