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Does peer review serve bureaucracy better than science?

Everybody complains about peer review, but as Mark Twain is supposed to have remarked about the weather, nobody does anything about it. Yet it might be expected that a human tradition, particularly one that as Maciej Henneberg shows in his essay Peer Review: the Holy Office of Modern Science is of very recent origin, would be easier to change than the weather. Why it appears otherwise, is therefore an interesting question.

As with the perpetuation of any human institution, the persistence of peer review reflects its value to those in a position to preserve it. And it is those who “manage” science, the government science funding agency staffs, foundation administrators, research institute directors, deans of science and the like, who both value and perpetuate the institution of peer review. To these people, peer review serves two extremely useful functions. It places responsibility for funding and hiring decisions on the judgment of technical experts, thereby relieving the bureaucrats of responsibility should a project fail to live up to expectations. Second, it achieves the translation of incommensurable values to a linear scale, thereby eliminating the need for deep knowledge or even superficial thought when making comparative evaluations. Applicants for appointment can be ranked by the number of their peer-reviewed publications, without regard to their originality or literacy. Or research proposals can be evaluated according to their rank on scales such as “feasibility” or “originality,” values that can then be combined in an overall score or funding worthiness quotient.

Thus, although administratively convenient, the value of peer review for the evaluation of science may be less real than apparent. Moreover, as Henneberg discusses, it can give rise to a variety of ills including unfair competition, the discouragement of innovation, and sheer waste of time and energy. However, as Henneberg also discusses, peer review as most commonly practised is not the only way to judge science and among the alternatives are some that seem clearly superior.

In an increasingly crowded world, there is an increasing need to substitute knowledge for other factors of production, particularly natural resources and land, which means that the productivity of the scientific enterprise is likely to be crucial to our future well-being. Moreover, at a cost of something like 3% of GNP in G7 countries, science is hardly affordable at all unless it is productive. It can be expected, therefore, that responsible administrators will be ready to dispense with the convenience of peer review as it is now practiced if good reasons are provided for the view that alternative procedures can achieve greater productivity, competitiveness and originality in scientific research. We believe, therefore, that Professor Henneberg’s lucid essay will be helpful in changing the view that nothing can be done about peer review, and we invite readers with something to add to the discussion to take Professor Henneberg’s essay as a starting point for their own contribution to naturalSCIENCE.

Related Article

naturalSCIENCE Editorial. 1998. Nature versus NASA: A question of scientific correctness? http://naturalscience.com/ns/articles/edit/ns_ed03.html.


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