السنة 18 العدد 172

Peer Review: A Fallible Process in Scientific Research.



Dr. Muhammad Azeem
Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 
University of Nizwa.  



The late 19th and early 20th centuries bore witness to a profound transformation in the realm of science. During this era, momentous developments such as the emergence of quantum mechanics, the formulation of the general theory of relativity, the serendipitous discovery of penicillin, and the innovation of pasteurization fundamentally altered our perspectives on the world and the way we inhabit it. Furthermore, this period marked a shift in scientific communication, as scientists began to disseminate their findings to the broader public. Before this juncture, scientific reports were primarily exchanged through correspondence among colleagues or conveyed through the medium of books.

Moreover, this epoch saw a prevalence of individual scientific endeavours, with most researchers working in isolation and producing research articles with sole authorship. Additionally, some scientific journals even remunerated authors for their contributions. This Golden Age of contemporary scientific discoveries endured for approximately five decades.

Nonetheless, from the latter half of the 19th century to the present day, no transformative ideas of such magnitude have surfaced to profoundly influence the collective consciousness of ordinary individuals. It could be contended that all the foundational principles have been unearthed, thus leading to a near-flattening of the curve concerning groundbreaking discoveries. While this assertion lacks validity on multiple fronts, another remarkable occurrence in the annals of scientific research and publishing has impeded the emergence of novel ideas in the realm of science – the peer review process.

The First Casualty of Peer Review: The peer review process, first formally adopted by Nature, was supposed to act as a sieve to filter out high-quality research articles from poor ones in a transparent way. However, precisely the opposite has happened. There are no agreed standards of peer review, not even an agreeable definition for this process. The very first casualty of this process was our own, Dr. Abdul Salam. He was the first one to discover that the phenomenon of the conservation of parity is not obeyed in the Beta decay. The article was sent to Paul Dirac, the famed British physicist, for peer review who rejected this "absurd" idea. Later, Yang and Lee discovered the same idea independently published their observations in the Physics Review, and received a Nobel Prize in 1957.

A Biased and Obscure Process: The peer review process is transparent and unbiased, and is also far from reality. The identity of the peer reviewers is always hidden. Sometimes, the peer review report is nothing but a suggestion from the reviewer to cite his articles and I have been a beneficiary of such peer review reports. On other occasions, the peer reviewer might be a competitor in the same field, and I have been a victim in this case, who is against the publication of the article because the observations made in the article are opposite to that of the peer reviewer. Now that email correspondences have made it easy for scientists and academics to extend their network, quite often a peer reviewer is an old colleague or a friend from the university days who supports the publishing of the paper without bothering about the quality of the article. There also is a hidden motive that his friend would later provide favourable reviews for his upcoming article. Moreover, it has been repeatedly seen that journal editors and reviewers are biased against certain authors. The most famous is the study of DP Peters and SJ Ceci [1] who sent the already published articles by big names in the field to the same journals with fictitious and unknown author names and institutions. Not surprisingly, the articles were rejected by the journal without realizing that they had already been published. I, once, had to peer review an article by my Ph.D. supervisor. And I must admit that I was petrified. I raised a few questions in my peer review report (my supervisor trained me well), which were never answered and the article was published because he has a well-established name in that field of research. In another instance, a fine research article proving the invalidity of the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorem has never been published only because it challenged the giants. The author, Stephen J. Crothers, ultimately published his report on researchgate.com [2], a social networking site for scientists and academics. It must be mentioned that Crothers's articles are acknowledged by the Nobel laureate Prof. Gerard 't Hooft. 

The reviewers are also found to be strongly biased against the negative results, the results showing, for example, that a certain intervention in medicine does not work. 

Open Access: The big publication houses are now introducing open access options and charging the authors and their institutions large fees to publish their articles. If an author opts for open access, it is more likely that the article will be published, rendering the peer review process practically ineffective.  

Irreproducible Observations: Reproducibility of the results published in the peer-reviewed articles is another issue. In 2011, Glenn Begley of Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, experimented to reproduce the results of 53 articles published in the top journals of Oncology. He could reproduce the results of only 8 articles, a meager 11%. A classic example of reporting incorrect data is of Erika Hagleberg who reported mitochondrial DNA recombination in the samples obtained from the island of Nguna in the March 1999 issue of the Proceedings of Royal Society. The report got wide publicity because it showed that mitochondrial inheritance was not exclusively maternal, a contradiction to all the work published in the previous decade on mitochondrial DNA in human evolution. This article got Erika a prestigious position at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, and was invited to prestigious conferences worldwide. This was, however, a difficult buy for Bryan Sykes who pioneered the technique of DNA sequencing and was considered an authority on DNA archaeology. He could not reproduce the results published by Erika and her coauthors. He requested the specimens from Erika, which she refused. Bryan had to hound Erika and finally got her at a conference in Cambridge where she was delivering a keynote lecture. He confronted her in the questions sessions of the conference in front of the public. This created enough doubt and finally, Erika, coming under pressure from her coauthors, conceded and published a correction in August 2000. She could save her skin by blaming the DNA sequencing machine [3]. Another more shocking example of research misconduct and fabrication of data is Pardeep Mehra and Sapan Desai. They reported in August 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic, in the Lancet that the anti-malarial drug hydroxycholorquine could be used to treat COVID-19 patients. The report was later retracted when the Guardian found inconsistencies in the data. 

Abuse of Peer Review: There are several ways in which the peer review process is abused. Vijay Soman, acting as a peer reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine, copied the data of Drummond Rennie and attempted to publish it with his name. Soman got caught because the journal, by coincidence, sent his paper to the original author for peer review [4]. Such is the level of intellectual corruption in academia and the peer review process is not helping to contain it. 

The sad fact is that several universities around the world have adopted a promotion and grant award system based on published peer-reviewed research articles. Unscrupulous academics with sham collaborations bend the peer review process in their favour and win promotions, salary benefits, teaching load reductions, huge research grants, and administrative positions. And all of this is happening in the purest name of scientific research. 

The above arguments, however, in no way suggest that the peer review process should be abandoned altogether. However, a new model of peer review must be invented. One way of doing so is that peer review is done by the readers after a research article is published. This is easier to do because most of the journals, nowadays, are published online. Readers, then, can peer review and rate the articles. But perhaps the best argument is presented by Allan Savory, the renowned ecologist, "New knowledge and new scientific insights can never be peer-reviewed."

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