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Problems with Peer-Review: A Brief Summary

We’ve received some very positive feedback about my piece on problems with the peer-review publication system. Admittedly, it’s a slightly long article, so I’d like to provide a short summarized version of the arguments here:

Point 1. Good science does not have to be published in the peer-reviewed literature.
Groundbreaking scientific books, like Darwin’s Origin of the Species or Newton’s Principia were not published in peer-reviewed journals. There are many examples of leading journals like Nature and Science having rejected important research, including research that later won the Nobel prize. Even the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1993 case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. that “Publication (which is but one element of peer review) is not a sine qua non of admissibility; it does not necessarily correlate with reliability, and in some instances well-grounded but innovative theories will not have been published.”

It’s a fallacy to claim that a scientific idea is necessarily unreliable if it hasn’t appeared in the peer-reviewed literature.

Point 2: The peer-review system faces two common criticisms: (1) that the system wrongly rejects scientifically valid papers, and (2) that the system wrongly accepts scientifically flawed papers.
There are many examples where journals had to retract papers because errors, or even outright fraud, went undetected by the reviewers. Studies have found that peer-review has little effect on improving the quality of articles. Peer-review publication is time-consuming and expensive and often excludes people for no good reason. But the “publish or perish” mindset keeps the system in place.

Point 3: If you believe that scientific peer-reviewers are like perfectly objective robots, then you believe a myth.
All scientists are humans, and none are inerrant. Political concerns, economic factors, lab-rivalry, support for one’s friends, and other normal human elements are never completely divorced from the peer-review process. Journals have huge economic interests in preserving the current flawed system, and research scientists gladly play along because peer-reviewed papers are necessary for them to maintain their positions.

Point 4: Scientific dogmatists increasingly play the “peer-review card” to silence scientific dissent.
Despite the deficiencies in the peer-review system, “peer-review” serves as a rhetorical weapon, enlisted for the purpose of silencing dissenting, minority scientific viewpoints. In scientific debates, we often hear sneers like “Does your criticism appear in a peer-reviewed journal?” before it will be taken seriously. It’s hypocritical when scientists push their views upon the public through non-peer reviewed venues like the media, but then try to shut down critics for responding in non-peer-reviewed venues.

Point 5: The peer-review system is often biased against non-majority viewpoints.
The peer-review system is largely devoted to maintaining the status quo. As a new scientific theory that challenges much conventional wisdom, intelligent design faces political opposition that has nothing to do with the evidence. In one case, pro-ID biochemist Michael Behe submitted an article for publication in a scientific journal but was told it could not be published because “your unorthodox theory would have to displace something that would be extending the current paradigm.” Denyse O’Leary puts it this way: “The overwhelming flaw in the traditional peer review system is that it listed so heavily toward consensus that it showed little tolerance for genuinely new findings and interpretations.”

Point 6: ID proponents have published a significant body of legitimate peer-reviewed research, but it’s important to understand that being recognized in the peer-reviewed literature is not an absolute requirement to demonstrate an idea’s scientific merit.
Despite the attempted lockout, ID proponents have published their ideas in peer-reviewed scientific journals. This shows that ID has academic legitimacy whether or not one applies the dubious “peer-review” test of good science.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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