Feature Scientific Research

Problems with peer review

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1409 (Published 15 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1409
  1. Mark Henderson, science editor
  1. 1The Times, London
  1. mark.henderson{at}thetimes.co.uk

    Several recent high profile cases have raised questions about the effectiveness of peer review in ensuring the quality of published research. Mark Henderson investigates

    Mention peer review to any researcher and the chances are that he or she will soon start to grumble. Although the system by which research papers and grant applications are vetted is often described as science’s “gold standard,” it has always garnered mixed reviews from academics at its sharp end.

    Most researchers have a story about a beautiful study that has been unreasonably rejected. An editor might have turned it down summarily without review. A referee might have demanded a futile and time consuming extra analysis. Or a rival might have sat on a manuscript for months, consigning it to limbo under the cloak of anonymity.

    Barely less common are mordant criticisms of high profile papers published by high impact journals. How could Stanley Ewen and Arpad Pusztai’s 1990s research on genetically modified food have been passed by the Lancet?1 How could studies that describe mere technical advances be deemed worthy of Cell or Nature? And how could Science have failed to rumble the fraudulent cloning work of Hwang Woo-suk?2

    A bubbling undercurrent of resentment and jealousy, of course, afflicts every fiercely competitive professional field. But in recent weeks, three incidents have brought concern about peer review to a head.

    Firstly, leaked emails showed that Phil Jones, former head of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, had pledged to exclude papers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report “even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is.” Then came an even more damaging realisation. The panel’s last report claimed that Himalayan glaciers were likely to melt entirely by 2035—an egregious error that should have …

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