Outmoded Science Journals Fail Again on Peer Review

Times are moving fast and Science and Nature magazine can’t cope. Caught resting on their laurels these eminent mainstream publications have again been exposed as inept or biased when it comes to peer-reviewing the papers submitted to them.

PSI overtakes Science and Nature
The latest blow concerns the questionable peer review policies of these “top” journals. These denizens of academic publishing are being pulverized in the blogosphere for their inflexibility and conservatism more in keeping with the bygone era of traditional paper and print publishing. Signaling the revolution this week are astute analysts from various quarters. Leading Aussie science blogger, Jo Nova, reflects the mood in the climate science community lamenting:

“The peer review system has decayed to the point where the culture of the two “top” science journals virtually guarantees they will reject the most important research done today. It is the exact opposite of what we need to further human knowledge the fastest. Science and Nature are prestigious journals, yet they are now so conservative about ideas that challenge dominant assumptions, that they reject ground-breaking papers because those papers challenge the dominant meme, not because the evidence or the reasoning is suspect or weak.”

Apparently, unwilling or unable to keep pace with the rise of “peer-to-peer” (P2P) Science and Nature typify a fossilized mentality when compared with the innovations now occurring elsewhere in online multi-media publishing. Just as Youtube, file sharing and high-tech cheap multimedia helped trigger a transformation in the music and film market industry, grassroots scientists are now getting in on the act. Exploiting social media in the same way scientists are bypassing the perceived gatekeeping mentality of many of the established top journals and forming new online communities capable of creating their own electronic journals offering real time, open peer review applying rigorous standards that would put many mainstream journals to shame

In climate science so it is in medical research. The New York Times has published an astonishing article that once again indicated peer-to-peer (P2P) is becoming an irresistible force for change.

In ‘Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Humans’ Deadly Ills,’ Gina Kolata exposes how a “game changer” 10-year study by Dr. H. Shaw Warren, a sepsis researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, was scorned by the leading science journals. Warren and his colleagues had identified why every one of nearly 150 drugs tested on mice at a huge expense failed on human patients. For a year the researchers tried to get their study published in Science and Nature, hoping to reach a wide audience, but both rejected it. Science resorted to the glib excuse that the journal “accepts only about 7 percent of the nearly 13,000 papers submitted each year.” But why restrict the number of papers published in an era of electronic online publishing where the actual quantity of words published is no longer a cost factor?

The problem probably resides somewhere between gatekeeping and overload in this fast-moving information age. Frankly, Science and Nature run their publications as if the world still lived contentedly in a bygone era of deference to authority where most decisions by academics were taken ponderously and behind closed doors. But times have moved on. These “middlemen” of science have become as redundant as so many record labels in the music industry. Innovators in the sciences – just as in the arts – are beginning to demand immediate universal and low cost access to their work.

Of course, the Internet is more than capable of feeding gigabytes of information to the lustiest of appetites. Just as it is does for entertainment so does the immediacy of the World Wide Web offers probably the best vehicle to earnest raw truth in the sciences. In fact, the writing has been on the wall for the obstructionists for a decade as demonstrated in 2004 in a controversy concerning the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Unethical conduct by journal editors saw apparent collusion between authors and funding companies (and governments) to skew the facts.

As Mike Adams, Editor of NaturalNews.com noted: “Too many of these journals are masquerading as stewards of good science — they pretend to show articles that are well-researched, that are authored by people who have no financial interest in their publication, and that have been put through a rigorous quality control process known as peer review.”

Adams goes on to expose the problem, “Often, the so-called scientific truth presented by these journals is really just a relative truth that has been invented by a circle of influential doctors, researchers and journal editors who define scientific truth by choosing what to publish (and what to ignore). So, it is a rather obvious case of circular reasoning on their side. In other words, to put it more plainly, it’s true if they say it is, and if they reject a paper, then it’s not true. Scientific fact is whatever they tell you it should be.”

An element of fraud may well be tainting the entire system and stubborn resistance to change merely adds fuel to the fire. This may explain the rapid rise of ‘Retraction Watch,’ an up and coming blog dedicated to highlighting those papers that are being retracted on a weekly basis for scientific misconduct, incompetence or unexplained “error.”

With corruption and poor ethics notoriously blighting so many professions today there is clearly scope for this fast developing new market. Right before our eyes we are witnessing the discredited, old style journals being superseded by cheaper, more accessible new Internet based journals backed (and often staffed) by those scientists disenfranchised from a failing and increasingly irrelevant mainstream.

Principia Scientific International (PSI) is one such fledgling science association-cum-journal that has seen rapid growth in recent months. Taking on board innovations in open peer review, as detailed in showpiece article ‘Upstarts Lead Peer-to-Peer Science Online: where next?’, PSI has invested in providing members with a bespoke inhouse open peer review and online publishing operation where the new buzzword is P2P.

In its short life PSI has already acquired 200+ full members, a quarter of whom possess doctorate-level qualifications and a database of more than 1,200 subscribers to its weekly newsletters. A bullish site editorial indicates why:

“Old-style peer review just isn’t up to the job and a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the degree of misconduct is even worse than previously thought. So PSI has been handed the baton to move online science evaluation further towards full transparency. Grasping P2P with both hands, hundreds of scientists from around the world from diverse specialisms and cultures are coming together to discuss ways towards better testing and evaluation of new scientific and technological ideas. Moreover, P2P is also being shown to enable PSI to uncover misuse of science (and scientists) by governments and corporations. PSI embraces its role as a sentinel for truth and transparency and is proving to be an intellectual safe haven for whistleblowers.”

So, if Science and Nature are to take on their new rivals they may want to start learning that P2P is here to stay and should adapt accordingly.


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3 responses to “Outmoded Science Journals Fail Again on Peer Review

  1. Pingback: Outmoded Science Journals Fail Again on Peer Review « Skeptics Chillin'

  2. Snapple

    CIA-commissioned climate change report outlines perils for U.S. national security http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=14682

  3. John O'Sullivan

    Gavin, thanks for that. Shame you didn’t post a more relevant link such as the one below revealing that the CIA has now closed down it’s climate change office. So much for the “perils” of climate change eh?

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