Peer review in trouble

The peer review system, one of the bedrocks of academic publishing that helps to ensure the quality of research papers, is in trouble. For those not familiar with the system, when a researcher wants to publish the results of their labors, they send the finished manuscript to their journal of choice. The editors in turn have three choices: choose on their own to publish or reject if they feel they have the expertise to judge, or send it out to one or more reviewers who are experts in the same field to obtain their opinion first. The last option is the most common one.

The point is that nothing should get into print until it has been seen by someone knowledgeable in the field. The peer reviewer is not expected to verify every aspect of the paper but to ensure that the paper says something new and useful and that the research followed proper protocols, had the proper safeguards, and was not claiming something that was unwarranted by the evidence.

The weakness of the system has been that reviewers do not get paid but perform this time-consuming task out of a sense of duty. This can make it difficult for editors to get reviewers who respond in a timely manner. Meanwhile, journal prices have been rising rapidly, hurting library budgets and causing many to cancel subscriptions, resulting in papers not getting wide readership.

One response to this has been the proliferation of open-source journals. In this model, the papers are published online free to readers but the authors pay a fee to supposedly cover the administrative costs. But scam artists have entered the field creating impressive-sounding journals that do not do any peer-review at all but just publish for a fee. This lack of any oversight has resulted in some spectacular hoaxes being pulled on them like this one.

Now a new scam has been reported in Nature involving real journals whereby authors have taken advantage a weakness in the system that assigns reviewers to create a ring of people who cited each other and then gave each other, and themselves, favorable reviews.

I think open-access is the way of the future. I think peer-review, while desirable, may not survive the demand for quick distribution of research results. We might end up entirely with situations like those that exist in some scientific fields where people put their own papers up on things like arXiv. The papers are not peer-reviewed but the authors need to be endorsed, i.e., given a kind of seal of approval according to some criteria, to ensure that the people who post papers are legitimate. After that, it is hoped that those papers that have something useful to say will stand out from the crowd while those that lack value will be ignored, a kind of wisdom-of-the-crowds peer-review if you like.


  1. says

    This is an aspect of scientific publishing which really would not have occurred to me, except in crankery and quackery. Networking might be nice, but reviews should be blind. And it seems potentially a result of the commercialization of academic spaces.

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