December 8, 2022

“But has it been peer-reviewed?”

A peer-reviewed study is commonly regarded as the gold standard for truth and trustworthiness in scientific research. However, after several prominent scandals involving suggestions of research fraud, concern about its usefulness has spread beyond academe. So much so that a committee of the UK’s House of Commons has just published a report on the peer review process. Since the government is a major funder of research, its opinions matter.

A peer-reviewed study is commonly regarded
as the gold standard for truth and trustworthiness in scientific research.
However, after several prominent scandals involving suggestions of research
fraud, concern about its usefulness has spread beyond academe. So much so that
a committee of the UK’s House of Commons has just published a
report on the peer review process
. Since the government is a major funder
of research, its opinions matter.

Lurking in the background are the scandal
over Dr Andrew Wakefield and his fraudulent and unethical research into autism
and “Climategate”, the huge controversy over whether leaked emails from the
University of East Anglia revealed manipulation of data and editorial bias.

Even some scientists are ferocious critics.
Among the objections canvassed in the report are that peer review stifles
novelty, reflects editorial bias, is expensive and is burdensome on
researchers.

Furthermore, editors of some leading journals
dispute whether it is effective. Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical
Association, once said “‘If peer review was a drug it would never be
allowed onto the market”. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The
Lancet, quoted a study which concluded that “Editorial peer review,
although widely used, is largely untested and its effects are uncertain”. On the other hand, Research Councils UK told the committee that “the
strengths of peer review far outweigh the weaknesses”.

The report broadly expresses its confidence
in the peer review process but says that it can be improved. Oversight of
research integrity, it says, is unsatisfactory. There should be an external regulator
to deal with the rare cases of research misconduct.  

The MP chairing the committee, Andrew Miller told the BBC:
“It’s not a case of how many times mistakes get made and how many times
things slip through the net. It’s the potential seriousness of errors or
fraudulent activity that should cause us concern, and principally we need to
think not just about the individual incident but the broader impact on public
confidence in science.” ~ BBC, July 28;

Michael Cook
peer review
research fraud