Peer Review: HISTORY

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Thu Jan 18 17:01:02 EST 1996

A colleague, who reqested anonymity (don't
confuse THIS anonymity with Anonymous
Peer Review, APR) has provided an extensive 
analysis of APR offered that his/her essay be 
reposted, which I do in this posting.

My 'thanks' letter to this Colleague: 


Thank you very much for your most profound assessment 
of science and peer review. I certainly agree with much 
of your vision, minor variations of perspective

Needless to say, that such deep analysis like you have 
provided below contributes a lot to the understanding 
of the problem partially reflected in back-and-forth 
skirmishes which I am exchanging with several of my 
colleagues at bioforum and biocan (I call ALL scientists
'my colleagues', regardless of the research area, as 
I am and likely to remain a firm believer in the 
intellectual brotherhood [ and sisterhood - to be 
politically correct ! ] of ALL scientists, no matter 
that the reality often tries to tell us that this
is an idealistic illusion).  
As you suggest, I am happy to repost your views and, 
following your request, I am removing only those 
[ very few ] portions in your essay which, you fear, 
may identify you. Don't worry, I respect and understand 
all such requests and the very fact that we often have 
a need to recourse to THIS kind of ANONYMITY 
(SCIENTISTS discussing the issues of SCIENCE !) tells 
more about the oppressive and intimidating character 
of the modern system of APR and in-science mafias 
than all the contr-arguments of the proponents of 
the (secretive) status quo.

Alex Berezin  


Dear Dr. Berezin,

I have been following your discussion with Harriman, 
Ferland, "Kathy" and Robinson on APR and Research 
funding for a few weeks with considerable interest 
and some amusement. Unfortunately, I have not yet 
found out how to post to a newsgroup, so I am sending 
you this personally by e-mail. This way I can also 
write some things, which I would hesitate to 
publicize in a news group. 

[ several words, explaining why the colleague 
requests anonymity - A.B. ] :

The circles are small, and I do not have the 
ambition to be hounded for the rest of my life. 
The explicit name given is for you only, so that
you can verify my contention - I do not want to 
start a slanging match or worse.

In general I agree with your stand on APR. 
However, in my opinion your emphasis on APR misses 
the cardinal problem. If scientists were up to the 
ideal standard, APR would be quite in order. On 
the other hand, the attitude adopted by Kathy, 
that scientists (in great numbers) purposely work 
shoddily or deliberately falsify results is also 
too radical.

[ AB: I largely agree with the above constrains ]

In my view, the problems are created by the 
conditions under which science is being done. Over 
the last 100 years there has been a transition 
from the scientist, who works for his own purposes 
with private means, to the government funded 
careerist. The traditional scientist with private 
means could follow his interests in his own time 
in whichever way he found suitable. His requirements 
in equipment were moderate. If he was lucky, his 
efforts were rewarded by a chair at some university. 
If he was less successful, he remained a private 
scientist to the end. Under these circumstances, 
scientific debates were often carried out with 
considerable asperity, but no-one would have 
considered suppressing the publications of a rival. 
Quite the contrary, one cited one's rival in order 
to convince one's own readers of the poor quality 
of his work etc. This meant that discussions were 
open and results were judged by the whole scientific 
community, so that in the long run the better work 
persevered. In those days peer review was unheard 
of, but also unnecessary, because the volume of 
work to be published was small.

Over the years since then the private scientist 
has become extinct. Science it a career-job like 
many others. The means are limited and more people 
want to work in the field than can be accomodated. 
Furthermore, science has become prestigeous. The 
old private scientist was possibly ambitious for 
"an everlasting name in the hall of fame", but the 
way there was centered around his own person
and involved little else - i.e. he had little
"power" or influence.

He was possibly garrulous, self-centered, a tyrant 
in his institute etc., but certainly not a man of 
wide influence or a "power politician".

Now all this is changed. A successful scientist is 
a man of great influence - he determines who can 
publish what results, where he can get them published, 
who is to be accepted into the holy circle of "peers" 
(note that peers are originally the Lords of England),
who is to get a chair, who is to obtain funding etc. 
In other words, the successful scientist is no longer 
primarily concerned with the production of new knowledge, 
but with playing God to a large body of people. This 
prospect attracts a totally different character to
the original private scientist, who laid the foundations 
of our knowledge.

As a result of these changes, and the competition, the
requirements for success have also changed. As you 
yourself have pointed out, there is a dearth of real 
progress over the last decades, despite the enormous 
funding. This simply reflects that the number of
"real" scientists has not increased, and in any case 
true originality cannot be planned. You can accelerate 
the development of known techniques - Manhattan project, 
Apollo, etc. - but you cannot predict or plan the 
unpredictable. As a result we still have the few 
scientists who have struck gold, but also legions of 
successful "peers", who only have the gifts necessary 
for "power politics" - i.e. to be successful salesmen
of their own products and efficient eliminators of 
dangerous rivals.

Like company salesmen, there may be a few cynics who 
deliberately sell products they know to be useless. 
But most salesmen have the need to identify themselves 
with their product, so that they are genuinely 
convinced of its qualities. This is aided by the
enormous diversification of science, which makes it 
impossible to really judge the work outside of ones 
own direct field.

The situation is further aggravated by the explosion 
of the costs involved in research. 100 years ago 
I could have done top-of-the-draw research in my field 
with a microscope costing maybe 2 months of my salary.
Now I need at least an electron microscope ($800 000),
a laser scanning microscope - $250 000 and preferably 
a molecular biology setup (cost not known). Certainly, 
several groups can share such equipment, but it means 
that the funding has to come from some centralized 
source, and someone has to decide that we are to be 

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