Reer Review: More Harm than Good

Keith Robison robison at
Tue Jan 23 08:34:07 EST 1996

Alexander Berezin (berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA) wrote:
: On Mon, 22 Jan 1996, Simon M. Brocklehurst wrote:
: > Alexander Berezin wrote:

: > > BEREZIN:
: > > Yes, I consider all the above factors, and nonetheless
: > > maintainn that the estimate 90 % is still quite robust.
: > > Even the legacy of great scientists can be adequately
: > > presented in 10 to 30 papers in many cases (for Einstein
: > > probally in about 10). So, the publication lists of
: > > some 300-400 lifetime papers are inflated by about the
: > > factor of 10 (and of course, not only for 'great'
: > > scientists).

: >    No.  If one is to publish in such a way as to allow others
: > a reasonable chance of repeating a piece of work, one can't
: > simply summarize many years of research in a few pages.
: > Also, many people find writing up their work for publication an
: > invaluable exercise i.e. it's a good way of forcing you to think 
: > carefully about the work you've been doing and to put it properly in
: > context.

: >    And... has it ever occurred to you that plenty of people don't 
: > feel that they are somehow being _forced_ to publish their work?  They
: > actually enjoy it!

: So, Simon, you want to play it the other way around and 
: say that what we mostly publish is what we believe is 
: important. Fine. I can buy this. But it still does not add 
: up to putting any high tag on peer review. Yes, I can say 
: that when I submit a paper I do so not because I am 'forced'
: (by grantsmanship pressure of whatever), but because
: I 'geninely believe that I have something important to say'.
: Great. But, if so, the benefit of doubt should be mine and 
: Peer Review (anonymous or not) is at best a nuisance which 
: I have to circumvent (to cheat, if you wish). 
: Experienced science 'wolves' (I humbly count myself among)
: more-or-less learned how to do. But many young and talented 
: (perhaps more telented than us) are crashed and pushed out.

: If you want to argue for PR further, please give us ONE 
: SINGLE EXAMPLE of major science breakthrough which is
: owes its existence to the blessed effecet of the anonymous 
: peer review. (yes, I know that people occasionally thank 
: anonymous peer reviewrs in 'acknowledgements', but I don't 
: count this as more than a token).   

Neat debating trick.  Of course nobody can point to that -- since
the work of the reviewer is hidden and at best gets an
acknowledgment -- but look how often that occurs (i.e.,
frequently).  I know from my own major paper that one
reviewer indeed made us rethink a major portion of our
analysis, and we were much the better for it.

With peer review, the chances that the Methods section
is actually written understandbly (and reproducibly) is
raised, the probability that data has been correctly
described is raised, the probability that terms have
been used carefully is raised, etc, etc.   Berezin loves
to forget that a peer reviewer is an assistant editor
who is specifically qualified in the field in question;
that is their important role.  Perhaps some workers
perform funny stuff to get their work past the editor,
but in the absence of hard statistics it is impossible
to judge this effect accurately.

Keith Robison
Harvard University
Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology
Department of Genetics 

robison at 

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