Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science and journals
Chief Executive, UnitedHealth Europe
Peer review is at the heart of the processes of not just medical journals but of all of science. It is the method by which grants are allocated, papers published, academics promoted, and Nobel prizes won. Yet it is hard to define. It has until recently been unstudied. And its defects are easier to identify than its attributes. Yet it shows no sign of going away. Famously, it is compared with democracy: a system full of problems but the least Vaguely Unpleasant we have.
When something is peer reviewed it is in some sense blessed. Even journalists recognize this. When the BMJ published a highly controversial paper that argued that a new `disease', female sexual dysfunction, was in some ways being created by pharmaceutical companies, a friend who is a journalist was very excited—not least because reporting it gave him a chance to get sex onto the front page of a highly respectable but somewhat priggish newspaper (the Financial Times). `But,' the news editor wanted to know, `was this paper peer reviewed?'. The implication was that if it had been it was good enough for the front page and if it had not been it was not. Well, had it been? I had read it much more carefully than I read many papers and had asked the author, who happened to be a journalist, to revise the paper and produce more evidence. But this was not peer review, even though I was a peer of the author and had reviewed the paper. Or was it? (I told my friend that it had not been peer reviewed, but it was too late to pull the story from the front page.)
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