Manuscripts submitted for publication in science journals, and applications for research grant funding of proposed investigations, both must be critically evaluated to determine acceptance or rejection. For science, these examinations are termed ‘peer review’ because they utilize the opinions of other scientists having expertise and experience in the research topic involved. Peer review aims to objectively judge quality and merit. A very informative history of peer review in science, “In Referees We Trust?”, was recently published by Melinda Baldwin in the February issue of Physics Today .
Although most scientists accept the usefulness of the peer review process, several operational issues can compromise it (e.g., conflicts of interest). Today’s essay examines some current problems in peer review that are encouraged by the corruption within modern scientific research (see: “More Hidden Dishonesty in Science is Uncovered!”). I am talking here about deceitful lies and outright cheating!
What stimulates corruption in modern science?
Job pressures in both academia and commercial industry negatively impact scientists working on research. At universities, strong pressures to obtain important results more quickly, produce more research publications, and acquire more research grants, all can cause unethical behavior in attempts to find an easier way to satisfy these demands. At industrial companies, evaluations of a new commercial product can be compromised by pressures to only acquire data supporting its merits and to ignore any data denying its desired qualities. At both locations, corruption results in some expert scientists not being rigorously honest and making false judgments during peer review.
Intense job pressures at modern universities largely are due to the conversion of academic science and scientists into business entities. That ongoing change means that: (1) money now is everything, (2) quantity is much more important than quality, and (3) the nature of scientific research is fundamentally altered (i.e., the chief goal is to get more money (from research grants), instead of getting more new knowledge; applied research is much more valued than is basic research). These conditions encourage judgments by peer reviewers to become distorted.
Since research scientists are only human, it always is hard to criticize a collaborator, personal friend, or teacher. Similarly, it is not so easy to avoid being more harsh when reviewing some research competitor. These common psychological inclinations are made much worse in academia by the vicious hyper-competition for research grant awards (see “All About Today’s Hyper-Competition for Research Grants” ). Getting and maintaining research grant awards now is a life-or-death matter for all faculty scientists. For industrial scientists, the concept of loyalty can become wrongly centered on the employer at the expense of dedication to the integrity of science.
Actual examples of distortions and inadequacies in peer review!
Some real faculty scientists I have known sought to have ‘friends’ in the peer review boards evaluating their research grant applications. Others worked to have ethnic counterparts supervise the peer review of their output. These successful tactics degrade the objectivity of peer review and make it only a game of strategy. Officials at federal granting agencies do try to keep peer review objective by requiring reviewers from the same institution as the author being evaluated to leave the room when that submission is being discussed; of course, input from any absent reviewer still can be given at other times and in other ways. Journal publishers use analogous rules to try to prevent favoritism by manuscript referees.
How frequently is peer review in science inadequate?
A distinguished former Editor-in-Chief of the very prominent New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marcia Angell, stated in 2009 that “It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published” . Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious clinical journal, The Lancet, stated in 2015 that “Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue” . These dramatic quotes are strong evidence that the process for peer review is defective, the objectivity of scientists as peer reviewers is decayed, and examples are shockingly frequent!
Why are ethical aberrations in peer review tolerated by professional scientists?
Working scientists usually view this problematic situation as being part of the current degeneration in modern science. Few scientists try to change anything; it much easier to just keep quiet. Nevertheless, some exceptional ‘whistleblowers’ like Dr. Peter Wilmshurst have the personal strength to expose ethical wrongdoing in science (see: “Whistleblowers in Science are Necessary to Keep Research and Science-based Industries Honest!”). Wilmshurst describes many examples of outright corruption, including amazing cases where known miscreants and liars continued to publish research reports or head an ethics board for many more years [4,5]. Lawsuits for misconduct in research today are frequently reported in the media (e.g., see: “Whistleblower Sues Duke University for Acquiring Research Grants via Falsified Research Publications!”). Admittedly, dishonesty in academia and industry often is covered up by insincere investigations.
What can be done to make peer review more meaningful?
Several factors need to be changed in order to remedy inadequate peer reviewing and the growing corruption in science: (1) graduate school education of scientists must strongly emphasize the necessity for total honesty by all scientific researchers, (2) evidence for cheating and dishonesty must be more vigorously sought and investigated, (3) the penalties for research misconduct must be made much harsher, (4) nondestructive alternatives to the current hyper-competition for research grant funding must be developed, and, (5) the process of peer review must be separated from the distorting influences of career progression, money, and unethical trickery. Whether making these changes are actually possible, and whether they will have the desired beneficial effects for science, remain to be seen. Changing the status quo always is extremely difficult!
Some attempts are underway to make science and peer review be better. Recent establishment of very large philanthropic support for scientific research liberates some small number of lucky scientists from the perverting influence of the research grant system (e.g., see: “Getting Rid of Research Grants: How Paul G. Allen is Doing It!”); of course, that approach cannot extend to the multitude of other scientists. Some new journals avoid the traditional practices for peer review (e.g., openly publishing everything, removing the secrecy of appointed reviewers, having direct discussions between authors/applicants and their reviewers, etc., [1,6]). A critical discussion of corruption in science journals by Piotr Sorokowski and colleagues is published in the March 22 issue of Nature (see: “Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor”) ; this convincingly reveals that peer review of manuscripts often is only a fraudulent sham.
Do you wonder how inadequacies in peer review matter to you personally?
Research corruption can immediately hurt innocent people and later cause other researchers to waste time and money when they base new experiments upon false data published in journals. You yourself might become totally convinced about the inadequacies in peer review when some honest physician gives you an approved new medication that is based on published research falsely showing almost no dangerous side effects. Peer review has considerable practical importance to you and to everyone else!
I must emphasize that many research scientists do not surrender to the common job pressures and do sincerely try to participate in peer reviewing with unemotional evaluations of merit. Any distortions of ethical standards by scientists subvert the true aim of science. Much greater effort to avoid all dishonesty in modern science should also help prevent the impending death of scientific research at universities (see: “Could Science and Research Now be Dying?”).
 Baldwin, M., 2017. In Referees We Trust? Physics Today 70:44-49. (Available on the internet at: http://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.3463 ).
 Angell, M., 2009. Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption. The New York Review of Books, January 15, 2009 issue. (Available on the internet at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/01/15/drug-companies-doctorsa-story-of-corruption/ ).
 Horton, R., 2015. Offline: What is Medicine’s 5 Sigma? The Lancet, April 11, 2015. 385:1380. (Available on the internet at: http://thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(15)60696-1/fulltext ).
 Robbins, R.A., 2012. Profiles in Medical Courage: Peter Wilmshurst, the Physician Fugitive. Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care, April 27, 2012/4:134-141. (Available on the internet at: http://www.swjpcc.com/general-medicine/2012/4/27/profiles-in-medical-courage-peter-wilmshurst-the-physician-f.html ).
 Smith, R., 2012. Richard Smith: A Successful and Cheerful Whistleblower. The BMJ (British Medical Journal) Blogs, October 10, 2012. (Available on the internet at: http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/10/10/richard-smith-a-successful-and-cheerful-whistleblower/ ).
 Sorokowski, P.,Kulczycki, E., Sorokowska, A. & Pisanski, K., 2017. Predatory Journals Recruit Fake Editor. Nature 543:481-483. (Available on the internet at: http://www.nature.com/news/predatory-journals-recruit-fake-editor-1.21662 ).
GO BACK TO HOME PAGE OR SCROLL UP TO MENU UNDER THE WEBSITE TITLE