Peer review: What is it good for?

Peer review: What is it good for?, Science in the Open, 5 Feb 2010, posted by Cameron Neylon:


There remains much reverence of the traditional process of peer review. I may be over interpreting the tenor of Andrew Morrison’s editorial in BioEssays but it seems to me that he is saying, as many others have over the years “if we could just have the rigour of traditional peer review with the ease of publication of the web then all our problems would be solved”.  Scientists worship at the altar of peer review, and I use that metaphor deliberately because it is rarely if ever questioned. Somehow the process of peer review is supposed to sprinkle some sort of magical dust over a text which makes it “scientific” or “worthy”, yet while we quibble over details of managing the process, or complain that we don’t get paid for it, rarely is the fundamental basis on which we decide whether science is formally published examined in detail.

. . .Whatever value [peer review] might have we largely throw away. Few journals make referee’s reports available, virtually none track the changes made in response to referee’s comments enabling a reader to make their own judgement as to whether a paper was improved or made worse. Referees get no public credit for good work, and no public opprobrium for poor or even malicious work. And in most cases a paper rejected from one journal starts completely afresh when submitted to a new journal, the work of the previous referees simply thrown out of the window.

. . .Journals need to acknowledge the papers they’ve rejected, along with dates of submission. Ideally all referees reports should be made public, or at least re-usable by the authors. If full publication, of either the submitted form of the paper or the referees report is not acceptable then journals could publish a hash of the submitted document and reports against a local key enabling the authors to demonstrate submission date and the provenance of referees reports as they take them to another journal.

In my view referees need to be held accountable for the quality of their work. If we value this work we should also value and publicly laud good examples. And conversely poor work should be criticised.