Peer Review Anonymity on Trial

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Thu Jan 11 15:11:51 EST 1996


Finally we got it - Anonymous Peer Review (APR) is
challenged in a Court. 

Recent issue of Science Magazine (22 December 1995, 
p. 1912-1914) reports on a lawsuit of one group of 
biomedical scientists against another group. One
group sues another for an undisclosed amount which 
is mentioned to be 'well over $ 100 millions' (!).
The allegation: use of the confidential information 
obtained in the process of peer reviewing an article 
of competitors.

Few points worth noticing:

(1) This case confirms the immoral practice of journals 
sending articles for review to DIRECT COMPETITORS rather 
than having it reviewed (much better - openly) by competent 
people who are at a good arm length from the research under 
the review. 

(2) Names of key players (accused and accuses) are 
reported in the article. To the likely embarrassment of 
the journals, it sets a precedent that you are no 
longer fully protected by the alleged 'confidentiality' 
of APR. I believe, this is a positive news and such 
confidentiality should be explicitly dis-stated by the
(journals should warn reviewers that their names and 
reports can be published in case the controversy arises, 
by the discretion of the journals, not just by court 
orders). Furthermore, there is another a likely 
important POSITIVE implication of this. It points that 
the very principle APR principle is not sound legally.
Depending on the outcome of the case, it may pave the 
way for the eventual formal criminalization of APR.
(Repeat: ANONYMOUS peer review, open peer comments is
a fully valid mechanism).

Should this desirable development to occur (in this
century/millennium or the next) it will likely have a 
positive effect on the scientific ethics. Science is not 
a place for a institutionalized secrecy at first place, 
despite all the (il)logical twisting which is often 
applied by interested parties to defend APR system. 

(3) The papers in question were submitted to Nature,
the most prestigious place for biomedical 'discoveries'
(or claims to them). Was a real discovery made in this 
particular case or not, is not my point (personally,
I believe the likelihood of a USEFUL discovery is very 
low anyway). 

But the very fact that the authors cared mostly WHERE their
paper is to be published rather than been motivated by 
a genuine desire to report their findings to the community 
ASAP (they could do it in matter of just a couple of days by
circulating a pre-print and thus avoiding peer review altogether),
shows that the fundamental pathology of the present publication
system in science. The whole game of APR is largely contr-
productive for the progress of science (as it delays it and 
opens ways to corrupt the process). 

Especially now, when the printing and/or electronic 
technology are so widespread, affordable and fast and
the excuse 'not enough paper/disk space' is simply

There is no point to continue APR whatsoever. It should
be repaced by the system of open comments from the 
community. The route to accelerate the REAL progress in 
biomedical research (and other areas of science) is to 
publish EVERYTHYING researchers find worthy to communicate
without delay, having an efficient abstracting service
(already largely available) and STOP CARING TOO MUCH
WHERE THE PAPER IS PUBLISHED. If researchers are worthy
been paid salaries they are worthy to be heard from
on paper AND electronically.

Scientists: you are serious and intelligent people (or
at least that's what many still think of you). 

STOP SILLY GAME of "what journal is the most 'prestigious".  
Does it make any difference on what paper your article is 
published as long as you have something important to say.
Let journals like Science, Nature, etc publish just short 
reports on what goes on and have full texts published in
a much more limited paper editions (very few need full 
texts anyway) AND have them availble electronically.   

Fierce battles to secure personal interests ('who said 
what') is the MAIN reason why (contrary to some optimistic 
claims at this thread) there is indeed relatively LITTLE 
progress coming from 'biomedical establishment' to a real 
medicine. Biomedical scientists think much more how to 
beat each other than how to beat major deceases. The above 
lawsuit is a clear-cut illustration of a deep moral crises 
of the present research enterprise (and not only biomedical).   

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

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