Peer review-Faseb J. editorial

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Sat Oct 28 20:35:45 EST 1995

Dear Dr. Frey,

On behalf on very many (likely MANY THOUSANDS) of colleauges
in science who do not buy the myth that "peer review is the
best when it is secret" (even if many of us are FORCED, by 
the circumstances, to participate in this ugly ritual) let 
me thank you for posting your Editorial from the Faseb 
Journal. (and congratulations to the editors of Faseb J. 
for publishing it).

The issue which still waiting for the proper (perhaps,
detailed) answer is this:


How did it happen that the world community of scientists, 
if you wish an INTELLECTUAL BROTHERHOOD (and, of course, 
SISTERHOOD, according to polit.correct standards of today's
language) which undoubtedly includes many brilliant the 
most insightful minds this world has produced ("IF NOT 
THE SCIENTISTS, THAN WHO ?") can, nonetheless, build,
perfect (and subjugate itself to) such an utterly 
ANTI-intellectual and secretive, system as "Anonymous 
Peer Review" (APR). Why scientists THEMSELVES (no-one 
invented APR for them) have collectively chosen to
leave by gestappian standards ?

What do we respect more:

 - normally signed letters we recieve (from our friends,
colleagues, opponents, or even open enemies) OR:

 - dirty, unsigned, libelous notes squeezed under the door ?
(e.g. "your wife/husband was seen with..." kind of stuff)

Unlikely there will be too many votes in favour 
of the second option.

And yet, in science we do precisely this. By keeping 
its insistence to choose THE SECOND option (anonymous 
peer review) we declare our allegence to the squeezed
under the door option of which anonymous peer review
(APR) is a moral equivalent. 

Will Henkes eventually win the case in which they
seek to declare the anonimity in peer review illegal
(which it undoubtedly is from the point of view of
a normal sense, but not necessarilly the judicial
machinery) remain to be seen. But even if they fail,
some new (perhaps collective) legal battle(s) on this 
issue are well overdue.

Greatest scientists of the world (Euclid, Newton,
Descartes, Faraday, and scores of others) did not
see any need for APR. They would undoubtedly laugh 
at us if they could look at the end of 20th century, 
especially if they hear about such brilliant ideas 
as ANONYMOUS (!) peer review for ELECTRONIC (!) 
publications. Johnathan Swift (in Gulliver's Travel
to Laputa) was perhaps the very close to the correct
depicting of this nonsenical vanity fair.

Alex Berezin  

Alexander A. Berezin, PhD
Department of Engineering Physics
McMaster University, Hamilton,
Ontario, Canada, L8S 4L7
tel. (905) 525-9140 ext. 24546

On 28 Oct 1995, Allan Frey wrote:

> In view of the continuing discussion of peer review, I thought the view
> of an editor of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for
> Experimental Biology (FASEB J.) might be of interest.  The following is
> an editorial that I wrote and which recently appeared in the FASEB J.
> Allan
> Allan H. Frey                           email afrey at
> 11049 Seven Hill Lane                   voice 301.299.5181
> Potomac, MD 20854, USA
> The courts are considering whether the identity of peer reviewers should
> be secret.  Should we consider it?
> Allan H. Frey
> 11049 Seven Hill Ln.
> Potomac, MD 20854  USA
> afrey at
> It has been a fundamental tenet of science that the names of grant
> application and manuscript reviewers must be kept secret in order for the
> system to work.  But is that true?  The courts may soon force the
> scientific community to find out.  The first round concerning the question
> of secrecy has been fought in Federal District court; the second round is
> about to begin in a Federal Appeals Court (1).
> Suit was brought in the US District Court for the District of Columbia to
> force the NSF to reveal the names of the reviewers who wrote the
> evaluations of a rejected grant application (Henke vs US Dept of Commerce
> and NSF).  The plaintiffs believe that some of the reviewers may have had
> a conflict-of-interest.  In the first round, the District Court issued a
> summary dismissal order based on the technical point that the reviewers
> were promised secrecy; consequently, the names are exempted from
> disclosure under the Privacy Act.  Thus, the real issue for science was not
> addressed.  The plaintiffs are appealing to a Federal Appeals Court.
> Given the social changes that have been occurring in recent decades, it
> would not be surprising if a higher court found that the names should not
> be secret; if not in this case, in a subsequent case that will surely follow.
> Some people believe that the recent US Supreme Court ruling on Daubert vs
> Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals will be used to subpoena secret records of
> granting agencies and journals.  Thus, a full debate on this secrecy issue
> within the scientific community at this time would be timely.  It would be
> much better for the scientific community to actively debate the issue, and
> explore and test alternatives in an orderly fashion, than to wait and find
> itself suddenly forced to make a precipitous change.
> Through such an open debate and exploration, the scientific community
> may actually come up with something better.  The present system of
> secrecy has certainly not been without its problems. With reason, it has
> been argued that secrecy in peer review shields unqualified reviewers and
> biased editors; and invites abuse by reviewers who may have conflicts of
> interest, who may steal ideas and who may deliberately delay publication
> (2-4).
> On the other hand, an apparently reasonable argument can be made that the
> identity of people who do peer reviews should not be revealed.  But
> implicit in this latter argument are assumptions that are not true in real
> life.  One implicit assumption is  that scientists  (reviewers) are as the
> public often images them,  objective, dispassionate, all-knowing beings.
> We know they are not.  A "peer" is  often a direct competitor for fame and
> funds and this influences his  actions in science as much as if he were in
> business or sports.  Scientists (reviewers) are  human beings with all the
> faults and motivations that you find in every  other field.  Once upon a
> time, when the body of knowledge was small, an editor could  filter out
> such abuses or could recognize the validity of an argument in  rebuttal.
> But now, the body of knowledge is so large and science is  divided into so
> many sub-specialities, that no editor or program manager  can prevent
> these abuses.
> Further as Judson has pointed out "...Although peer review and refereeing
> seem rational, indispensable, and immutable, the histories demonstrate
> that they are social constructs of recent date.  They are not laws of
> nature, nor of epistemology."  He also points out that "... as over the years
> an ever-smaller proportion of grants gets funded and as the applications
> themselves ... are more difficult to put in any reliable rank order, politics
> become overt in the review process.  Rivalries between scientists,
> laboratories, and schools of thought emerge as palpable factors." (5).
> Given these facts, is secrecy wise?  Is it necessary for peer review to
> work?
> It can, and has been argued, that a primary reason secrecy is required is
> that scientists will be afraid to review if their identity were revealed.
> There is something to this argument; but they may also feel constrained to
> give a fair review.  And consider the fact that the reviewer's name is
> always published with his review of a scientific book. Consider, also, that
> we already have other indications that secrecy is not necessary for peer
> review to work.  Scientists post mss on Internet newsgroups now and
> receive lively criticism from readers (reviewers) whose identity is not
> secret.   I put on the Internet for criticism sections of a book ms which
> was just published (6).  I didn't perceive anyone pulling punches by any
> means, and they knew I would know their identity.  Maybe the expanding
> use of the Internet will resolve the question for us.
> As a scientist who has worked full-time in  research,  I have come to the
> conclusion that the identity of reviewers  should not be kept secret.  I
> personally tell editors and granting agencies  that they may reveal my
> identity to authors.  I think science and scientists are ill-served by the
> practice of secrecy and, ultimately, Society which benefits from and pays
> for scientific  research is harmed.
> Consider also that this matter of secrecy is not a new problem for
> Society.  Society has struggled with it for a millennium in other forms and
> in other contexts.  This  question in science is merely its latest
> incarnation.  Its a matter of  balancing the pros and cons, and the balance
> that our Society has arrived at is incorporated in our Constitution as the
> clause concerned with due process.  In a criminal trial, witnesses are
> sometimes in fear for their life, but our Society through long experience
> has decided that, on balance, it best serves Society to allow the defendant
> to know the identity of and to cross-examine the accuser.  Why should we
> reviewers for journals and granting agencies be an exception to these
> rules that were incorporated in the Constitution after a millennium of
> effort to find the right balance.  In my judgment as a scientist, science
> and Society would be better off without the veil of secrecy.  Certainly
> there will be problems, just as there are now with the veil of secrecy.
> But on balance, with due process, science will find ways to manage as the
> courts have and will be better off.
> References
> 1.  Henke vs US Dept of Commerce and the National Science Foundation.  US
> District Court for the District of Columbia, Civil action 94-0189
> 2.  Rennie, D., (1993) More peering into peer review.  JAMA  270,  2856-
> 2858
> 3.  Osmond, D. H., (1983) Malice's Wonderland: research funding and peer
> review.   J. Neurobiol. 14, 95-112.
> 4.  Broad, W. J., (1980) Imbroglio at Yale, I and II,  Science. 210, 38-41,
> 171-173.
> 5.  Judson, H. F., (1994) Structural transformations of the Sciences and the
> end of peer review.  JAMA. 272, 92-94.
> 6.  Frey, A. H., ed (1994) In "On the Nature of Electromagnetic Field
> Interactions with Biological Systems". R. G. Landes Co. Austin.

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