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March 06, 2006

"Peer Review is a Lottery", not an unbiased value, says Former BMJ Editor Richard Smith

THE RELIGION OF PEER REVIEW
"Despite a lack of evidence that peer review works, most scientists (by nature a skeptical lot) appear to believe in peer review. It's something that's held "absolutely sacred" in a field where people rarely accept anything with "blind faith," says Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ and now CEO of UnitedHealth Europe and board member of PLoS. "It's very unscientific, really."

What's wrong with the current system? What could make it better? Does it even work at all?
Indeed, an abundance of data from a range of journals suggests peer review does little to improve papers. In one 1998 experiment designed to test what peer review uncovers, researchers intentionally introduced eight errors into a research paper. More than 200 reviewers identified an average of only two errors. That same year, a paper in the Annals of Emergency Medicine showed that reviewers couldn't spot two-thirds of the major errors in a fake manuscript. In July 2005, an article in JAMA showed that among recent clinical research articles published in major journals, 16% of the reports showing an intervention was effective were contradicted by later findings, suggesting reviewers may have missed major flaws.

Some critics argue that peer review is inherently biased, because reviewers favor studies with statistically significant results. Research also suggests that statistical results published in many top journals aren't even correct, again highlighting what reviewers often miss. "There's a lot of evidence to (peer review's) downside," says Smith. "Even the very best journals have published rubbish they wish they'd never published at all. Peer review doesn't stop that." Moreover, peer review can also err in the other direction, passing on promising work: Some of the most highly cited papers were rejected by the first journals to see them.

The literature is also full of reports highlighting reviewers' potential limitations and biases. An abstract presented at the 2005 Peer Review Congress, held in Chicago in September, suggested that reviewers were less likely to reject a paper if it cited their work, although the trend was not statistically significant. Another paper at the same meeting showed that many journals lack policies on reviewer conflicts of interest; less than half of 91 biomedical journals say they have a policy at all, and only three percent say they publish conflict disclosures from peer reviewers. Still another study demonstrated that only 37% of reviewers agreed on the manuscripts that should be published. Peer review is a "lottery to some extent," says Smith."

Source: Alison McCook. Is peer review broken? The Scientist (February 2006) 20 (2), p.26 [FullText]

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