I’d like to hear from some other sciencebloggers and science readers what they think reform of peer-review should look like. I’m not of the opinion that it has any critical flaws, but most people would like to see more accountability for sand-bagging and other bad reviewer habits. Something like a grading system that allows submitters to rate the performance of their reviewers, then editors of magazines would tend to only consult with reviewers that authors felt were doing a fair job of evaluating their paper.
The drawback of course would be that reviewers might start going easier on papers just because they don’t want bad grades.
One thing I do know for sure though, we shouldn’t take advice about peer review from HIV/AIDS denialists…
Dean Esmay, for instance, is a frequent critic of peer review, especially in regards to his pal Peter Duesberg – the HIV/AIDS denialist extraordinaire. For instance, read about how Duesberg convinced a woman to let her daughter die, and remember Thabo Mbeki, the HIV/AIDS denialist president of South Africa bases his ideas on Duesberg thereby increasing the number of deaths Duesberg is responsible for greatly.
But that doesn’t stop Esmay from singing his praises and basing his belief that our peer review system is flawed on what I would say is an excellent success of the system. Read Esmay’s loving post about Duesberg’s SciAm article on chromosomal chaos and cancer for an example of his critique. One way not to win an argument about peer review reform is to say things like this:
While millions died, our corrupt Crony Review system blew it big time. Peter’s not the only one who illustrates this fundamental breakdown in scientific protocol, but he’s probably the most egregious example.
A scientist who has made major contributions in important areas, but questions the consensus view, should not be punished for it should he? Yet Peter has been, repeatedly.
You see, Dean Esmay, who has never published a scientific paper, who has never participated in peer review of a scientific paper, who has probably never even read a real scientific paper (and understood it) has determined it’s a system of cronyism because it prevented, of all things, Peter Duesberg from being published (he’s only really shut down on HIV/AIDS which he doesn’t even research – he still publishes on cancer). I consider that a shining example of the success of peer review, because even though Duesberg is a member of the National Academy, and once a prominent scientist who discovered the first viral oncogene myc, the reviewers started smelling the BS and shut him down so he couldn’t contaminate the literature with his absolutely atrocious denialist garbage which can only cause death and misery. It should be noted Esmay is also a global warming denialist and uses the same peer review critique to suggest global warming is all just a giant conspiracy for scientists to enrich themselves with grant money. I think somebody needs to explain to him how academic scientists get paid peanuts compared to their industry equivalents (suggesting that if we were in it for the money we’re going about it the wrong way) and that contrary to popular belief, we can’t justify buying luxury cars and homes with government grant money.
Other HIV/AIDS denialists, like Hank Barnes et al. of Barnesworld like to give us suggestions on peer review too. Here’s how they feel about the problems with the system they have nothing to do with.
Peer review enforces state-sanctioned paradigms. Pollack (2005) likens it to a trial where the defendant judges the plaintiff. Grant review panels defending the orthodox view control the grant lifeline and can sentence a challenger to “no grant.” Deprived of funds the plaintiff-challenger is forced to shut down her lab and withdraw. Conlan (1976) characterizes the peer-review grant system as an “incestuous ‘buddy system’ that stifles new ideas and scientific breakthroughs.” Science is self-correcting and, in time, errors are eliminated, or so we are taught. But now with a centralized bureaucracy controlling science, perhaps this rhetoric is “just wishful thinking” (Hillman, 1996, p.102). Freedom to dissent is an essential ingredient of societal health. Braben (2004) contends that suppressing challenges to established orthodoxy sets a society on a path to its doom.
He “likens it to a trial where the defendant judges the plaintiff.” That’s a bizarre analogy. I can’t quite wrap my head around it, I suspect it requires paranoid personality disorder to make sense of. And once again we get this outrageous canard that science enforces “orthodoxy” and doesn’t change paradigms. It’s like they read the first half of Thomas Kuhn’s description of the nature of scientific revolutions and skipped the part where he describes how paradigms get shifted by evidence.
The fact is scientific publications love papers that challenge orthodoxy or present new ideas. The only requirement is that for extraordinary claims you need extraordinary proof. Duesberg got a fair shake, Science Magazine even dedicated a three month review of his arguments and found them to be without merit. And at a certain point, when someone is presenting no data, cherry-picking facts to support their debunked theory, and causing people to forgo life-saving treatments, it’s ok to blackball them for being the scum that they are.
So, repeat after me. Show us data, give us proof and you can publish whatever you want. Attacks on peer review are the last refuge of the junk scientist who can’t get their garbage published. It’s never because they’re wrong or they haven’t proven their claims. Instead it’s a conspiracy! It’s those fat-cat peer reviewers who only make sure their buddies get grants so they can enrich themselves on the government’s dime!
Finally, note the last paragraph in Esmay’s global-warming article:
By the way, watch for the paint-by-numbers responses: the bashers and defenders of orthodoxy love to trot out phrases like “conspiracy theory” and “politics” and “pseudo science.” Because that lets them not only smear the skeptics, but also lets them completely evade the real issue: inherent conflict of interest and lack of objectivity.
It may be paint-by-numbers, but it’s still true. And I’m no defender of orthodoxy, but I am a defender of the process. And the failure of Duesberg and the other cranks that these HIV/AIDS denialists support isn’t due to a conspiracy of peer reviewers, but the fact that their evidence is BS, it has been debunked time and again, and worst of all, it kills. I think we can figure out how to improve peer review without advice from these denialists.
For his cherry-picking of Lindzen’s crap from the Speigel article (it doesn’t really say what he thinks it says) as well as his attacks on peer review, and terrible “plaintiff” analogy, I give these HIV/AIDS denialist cranks the following rating.