On Peer Review
Dale Pond, summer 1992
The process of peer review was originally developed to aid the process of delivery of good and useful information from one or more investigators to many others working in a given field of investigation. This process was usually through a magazine or journal of note supporting that particular field.
One of the problems of writing a journal pertaining to scientific investigation is the inevitable development of new knowledge which at times may contrast sharply with the old. This is both a blessing for society at large and a curse for the editor of such a publication. It is a blessing because a legitimate advance in science or applied technology promises new services or products and an implied increase in the well being of society.
The curse is that an editor receiving such new knowledge cannot always tell the "chaff from the wheat" especially if he has not been following these new developments or the newness requires a major shift in traditional methods or understandings. How can the editor know whether such new material is bona fide research or abstractions from a not so sincere person? The answer is this discernment is not always readily apparent.
If he publishes new materials he may be damned by the established traditionalists and if he doesn't publish he may be damned instead by the originator and perhaps even of historical review if this new stuff turns out to be valid later. He is caught between a rock of tradition and conservatism and a hard place called innovation and advancement. The editors place in all this is a tough one to be sure.
In an ideal situation the editor is not beholding to anyone except his or her principles. However, publishing journals has never been an ideal situation. Not only is the editor pulling his hair to satisfy the submitters and readers of papers he is also trying desperately to satisfy his co-editors, Peer Review committee, stock holders, advertisers and sponsors. If the editor has integrity and does his job well his credibility and circulation will increase with every issue. Unfortunately this growth in popularity and effectiveness usually parallels a growth in pressure from those surrounding the editor.
(1) The advertisers want to see articles supportive of their wares.
(2) The coeditors will support materials reflecting well on themselves and their cronies.
(3) The sponsors and stock holders want to see their investments safe, secure and prosperous.
Right here is where the battle lines are drawn. If any of these people have a vested interest such as their job security, their investments in their educations, job titles, titles of expertise, or a business relative to the subject area of the journal they naturally would not like to see these jeopardized. New scientific discoveries almost always jeopardize traditional beliefs and sacred cows of business. This is why it is new and news.
It takes a truly heroic and exceptional person of integrity to promote something that is harmful to his immediate interests but may be beneficial in the long run. Unfortunately there aren't that many courageous individuals employed as editors. When they are they don't last long as a rule. Who can really blame them? If they publish an article that demonstrates a new process that revolutionizes a manufacturing method now being employed by one of his own advertisers or sponsors they may withdraw their financial contributions to the publication. No one likes to be unemployed so there is a temptation to not publish. The Peer Review process then becomes an excuse and an easy way out of the quandary.
Peer Review, for some of the reasons given above, is almost a contradiction in terms. Many people have peers - except the truly original thinker and doer. His paper is the one that should be published assuming it is relevant, accurate and honest. (If it isn't polished submit it to those talented in making it so if it has merit.) But by virtue of his original thinking he probably doesn't even have a true peer. So who is qualified to review it? Who assumes the arrogance of passing judgment on anothers original work? Who has the right to condemn and restrict another persons life work and future well-being?
The history books are full of the stories of geniuses condemned to obscurity, poverty and ostracization by their "peers". Jesus, Socrates, Galileo, Tesla and Keely are just a few. Only they know the pain and suffering experienced by such arrogant, self-centered and unjust condemnations.
On the other hand Peer Review has saved us from countless frauds and other wastes of time, effort and money by carefully culling the less desirable expressions of pseudo-science, etc.
Editors and their Peer Review committees have shaped and reshaped society from time immemorial.
It is they who inform or misinform the rest of us. Their position is one of near sacred trust and responsibility. But as pointed out earlier - only the exceptional are truly capable and worthy of such exulted positions.
So what is to be done? How can the publication be preserved and new material introduced? The usual method of copping out to pressures from vested interests has not proven to always be to our advantage. Is there a better way?
As we move into the New Century or New Age as some would call it the hallmark will be cooperation, tolerance and peace. The computer business of recent years is perfect example of what we can expect and gives us clear insight into ways and means of addressing some of the above questions because they are doing a different way right now.
The personal computer is a new and original concept. With its introduction in the early 1970s it was a definite threat to those engaged in main frame computer businesses, manufacturing and support of typewriters, copy machines, hot metal printing, and many other fields. Fortunately the PC was not squashed in its infancy and the rest of its story is now unfolding. The point of interest here is that here is a new technology literally wiping out the old, tried and true, traditional methods of doing things. The PC business is replete with millions of innovators, inventors, writers and editors. These "people of change" are learning to change technologies, jargons, their methodologies of manufacturing on a daily basis. In other words, they have adopted change as their normal way of living. In fact change is their bread and butter or their demise as viable people. There is Peer Review in some computer related publications but due to the rapid changing nature of the industry Peer Review has become (for them so engaged) a dynamic thing of change itself.
The computer business is so dynamic, complex and rapidly transforming that all those involved in the business must be in constant and immediate contact with as many of their "peers" as they can manage. Their purpose then is not to pass judgement on each other's work, although this is a part of it, but to LEARN FROM and UPDATE each other. This dynamic interchange is, as everyone has seen, the only way to deal with the new as it wipes out the old seemingly overnight, every night.
Peer Review then is not something static, cast in concrete of traditional encrustations of vested interests and hand-me-down belief systems. The process of reviewing each other's work is essential but it should not slow down or halt innovation and discoveries. To the contrary it must be more and more similar to that illustrated above - a dynamic interchange between interested parties mutually driving the change. This interchange is made up of a mixture of education and teaching. No one person can gain all the knowledge in any one field. As one learns he naturally tends to be a guru or educator to those striving along side who are most likely gurus of their own piece of the information pie.
In other words, Peer Review should be (and is being) laid to rest as conventionally understood. In its place should be (it is already becoming) a dynamic cooperative interchange of knowledge and methodologies between those so mutually interested. Instead of condemning the upstart innovator those in the know should be aiding and assisting them. (After all it is their job, security or business that is being threatened and if they wish to survive will need to be aware of the new and adopt it.) Due to the very nature of the New Sciences this exchange of knowledge bases is unavoidable and essential and is actually happening more and more each day. The new stuff, the "right stuff" is forming from mergers of several previously separate disciplines into more comprehensive and complex views. Persons who spent years acquiring expertise in one isolated field are now finding themselves being pushed into learning more and more in other fields. They are being pushed by the rapid changes taking place every minute of every day in all branches of science and technology. What was good and adequate yesterday is not longer cutting the mustard today.
So Peer Review is rapidly becoming a mutual effort to survive (stay useful, productive and employed). It can no longer be called Peer Review in the old sense but instead a general acknowledgement that we are all in desperate need of continual sharpening of the mind and skills. It is no longer a review, condemn or approve process. It is one of mutual integration of skills, talents and knowledge bases.
Those possessing expertise in fields subject of a paper by another less informed writer should be encouraged to aid and assist the submitter in polishing his work (should it have some merit) - instead of condemning it because such a novice is not knowledgeable about some obscure lab process or a lesser known fact of their field.
In the past Peer Review has provided us with good, accurate and useful information when employed in its dynamic and positive aspects. This should be expanded not curtailed. When used negatively it has tended to preserve sacred cows, monopolies, the status quo and ignorance. The choice is ours which way we will use this most valuable of tools. Whatever choice we make will suffer us consequences good or bad. We must choose and act as though our future depends on it.