Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
The recent problems with the publication of the O’Donnell et al. response to the Steig et al. paper on Antarctica have focused attention on continuing problems with the current system of peer review, problems initially highlighted by the CRU emails. In addition to significant questions revealed in this particular case, I’d like to look at other general issues with peer review.
For me, the most inexplicable and interesting part of the Steig/O’Donnell affray has nothing to do with the scientific questions. It also has nothing to do with the actions of Steig or O’Donnell, actions which have much exercised discussion of scientific and personal ethics on the blogosphere. It also has nothing to do with Antarctica, or with statistics.
The inexplicable part to me was that Dr. Steig was named as a reviewer of the O’Donnell paper by the Journal Editor, Dr. Anthony Broccoli.
It was inexplicable because in the ancient tradition of adversarial science, the O’Donnell paper claimed that there were serious issues with the Steig methods. That being the case, the very last person to be given any say as to whether the paper should be published is Steig. If it were my Journal, I would have immediately called Dr. Broccoli, the Editor, on the carpet to explain such an egregious breach of both the journal policy and more importantly, common sense. Appointing Steig as a reviewer is contrary to the stated policies of the journal, which say:
A reviewer should be sensitive even to the appearance of a conflict of interest when the manuscript under review is closely related to the reviewer’s work in progress or published. If in doubt, the reviewer should indicate the potential conflict promptly to the editor.
Having Steig as a reviewer was done even though the authors of the O’Donnell paper wrote directly to the Editor (Broccoli) wrote to ask that Steig “be treated as a conflicted reviewer or that his review, at least, be sent to unconflicted reviewers for consideration before requiring us to make more major revisions.” The exact wording of the request was:
We have several concerns that we feel do not belong in the response and are more appropriately expressed in a letter. With this in mind, we would like to take a few moments of your time to discuss them. First, it is quite clear that Reviewer A is one (or more) of the authors of S09. This results in a conflict of interest for the reviewer when examining a paper that is critical of their own. This conflict of interest is apparent in the numerous misstatements of fact in the review. The most important of these were: …
This request was ignored by the Editor.
Steven Mosher had an interesting comment on this issue:
What makes this case different from any other “conflicted” reviewer case I’ve seen is this: Steig had made a public challenge to meet the author on the battlefield of peer reviewed literature. And in the case of Ryan [O'Donnell] this is an author who has no track record. That kind of challenge has no analogue that I’ve ever seen. Let’s see if I can make one
Imagine, for example, that you are a grad student with zero publications.
Imagine you make a pointed criticism or two of Judith Curry at a public forum, say an AGU Keynote. Imagine that Judy responds to you by saying, “go ahead try to get that published kid”
If you were that kid would you feel it was appropriate to have Judith review the paper? Would you have any reason to wonder if she was doing more than defending the science if as reviewer she gave you a hard time? Heck, even taking the reviewer assignment would be a sign to you that she intended to defend two things: her published paper and her public challenge/reputation.
Even beyond the special issues in this particular case highlighted by Steven Mosher, using a reviewer with such a glaring conflict of interest is also contrary to more general policies on conflicts of interest, such as the policy of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors:
Editors should avoid selecting external peer reviewers with obvious potential conflicts of interest–for example, those who work in the same department or institution as any of the authors.
While this seems clear to me, and likely to you, Dr. Broccoli seems not to have gotten the memo.
Please be clear that I am not saying that Steig should not be offered every opportunity to respond to the issues raised by O’Donnell et al. He should indeed be offered that. The normal way that this is done would be for the Journal Editor to give space (usually in the issue where the new paper is published) for Steig to respond to the issues.
But giving Steig a say of any kind in whether the paper should be published? Where is the common sense in that? Does anyone seriously believe that in that position, some scientists would not try to prevent the publication of the new paper? Human nature roolz last time I looked …
I have seen Dr. Broccoli’s actions defended in the blogosphere, usually by saying that the Editor will use their expert judgement to determine if a reviewer is engaged in gatekeeping behavior. They also say that the most knowledgeable person about a paper is likely the author, so the Editor needs their specialized knowledge.
The problem that I have with that idea is, if the Editor is so knowledgeable about the statistical issues in question that he can distinguish Steig’s gatekeeping from true claims, then why does he need Steig as a reviewer?
And if the Editor is not knowledgeable in the statistical questions involved (Dr. Broccoli is a climate modeller, not a statistician … nor is Steig a statistician for that matter), then he won’t have the knowledge to see whether Steig is gatekeeping or not.
Also, if the Editor is that good and knowledgeable, then why do scientific journals (including Dr. Broccoli’s journal) have policies strongly discouraging reviewers with conflicts of interest?
And even if the Editor is that knowledgeable (which Dr. Broccoli seems not to be), remember that the goal is to avoid even the “appearance of a conflict of interest” … just how did Dr. Broccoli decide that having Steig as a goalkeeper does not present the “appearance of a conflict of interest”? My grandma could see that conflict of interest from her current residence … and she’s been dead for fifty years.
This farrago shows once again, just as was shown in the CRU emails revealed by Climategate, that peer review for AGW scientists is far too often “pal review” – just a gatekeeping fiction to keep any kind of opposing views from seeing the light of day, and to give puffball reviews to AGW supporting papers. Yes, as a number of people have said, at the end of the day the system kinda sorta worked, with a crippled paper (e.g. no Chladni patterns) emerging from the process. But I can say from my own experience that sometimes it ends up with a paper going in the trash can, purely because of gatekeeping from AGW pal review.
And in any case, is that all that scientists are asking for? A system that kinda sorta works some of the time? Because that’s certainly not what the public either wants or expects.
My suggestions to make peer review a better system are:
• Double blind reviews, where neither the reviewers nor the author are aware of each others’ identities. At present this is true in some journals but not others.
• All reviews get published with the paper, with each one signed by the responsible reviewer.
This has a number of advantages over the current system:
1. Reviewers comments become part of the record. This is very important, as for example a minority review which is outvoted to get the paper published may contain interesting objections and other ideas. Or a favorable review can immediately be seen to be based on false logic.
2. Gatekeeping and conflicts of interest of the kind favored by Dr. Broccoli will be immediately apparent.
3. While it is sometimes possible for authors or reviewers to guess each others’ identities, at least it will only be a guess.
4. As the experience of the internet shows, anonymity does not encourage honesty or collegialty … it is easy to say anything you want if you know that you will never have to take responsibility for your words.
5. People could start to get a sense about the editorial judgement of the editors of the journals. If an editor frequently uses conflicted reviewers, for example, people should be aware of that.
6. There will be a permanent record of the process, so even years later we can see how bad paper slipped through or what logical mistakes led to unnecessary changes in the paper. This can only lead to improvements in the science.
People have said that if we publish reviews and reviewers’ names, people will be less willing to be reviewers, so the quality of reviews will suffer. I don’t think that’s true, for two reasons.
First, if someone wants to be an anonymous reviewer but is unwilling to sign their name to their opinion … why on earth would we pay any more attention to their opinion than that of a random anonymous blogger?
Second, if reviewing a paper offers a chance for a scientist to get his name and his ideas enshrined on the record in a scientific journal … why do people assume that scientists would not jump at the chance? I know I would … and it is true whether I might agree or disagree with the paper.
That’s what I see as broken about the system, and how I would fix it … with sunshine, the universal disinfectant. Yes, it is important during the review for the reviewers and the authors to be anonymous and the proceedings secret. But once the procedure is complete, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by keeping the peer review process open. Keeping it secret just encourages the current abusive system of pal review.
[Addendum] A couple of posters noted that I had not addressed rejected papers, my thanks for the feedback.
Each journal should publish papers that have been rejected, in electronic form only, and allow free public access to them.
In a way, this is more important than publishing the accepted papers. Science proceeds by falsification. But we have hidden away the most important falsification in the entire process, the falsification done by the reviewers.
These provisionally falsified claims are very important. If the reviewers’ rejections hold up, it will provide the ideas and logic needed to assess future repetitions of the same claim. If an eminent statistician has convincingly refuted my argument, THAT SHOULD BE IN THE PUBLIC RECORD.
Then the next time the argument comes up, someone could just say nope, someone tried that, here’s why it doesn’t work.
It would also encourage people to be reviewers, since their eminently scientific work of falsification would not be hidden away forever … and where’s the fun in that?
Now that I think about it, the current Journal practice of hiding scientific falsifications of proposed ideas is greatly hindering the progress of science. We’re throwing good scientific data and logic and argument in the trash can, folks. And by not showing the world that some idea has been judged and found wanting (and why), the same ideas keep coming up over and over again. As George Santayana didn’t say, “Those who cannot remember the falsification are condemned to repeat it”.
Regards to everyone,
[Addendum 2] Gotta love the instant feedback of the web. Andrew Guenthner says in the comments below:
I would agree with Leif that requiring journals to publish rejected papers is a bad idea, for many reasons. For one thing, getting science published is not difficult. Sure, getting it published in a top-tier journal can be tough, but there are plenty of places where the level of competition is low. In reality, most rejected papers with good science do not end up in the “trash can”; they end up in more specialized publications where there is less competition. And in most places, it is easy (and getting easier) to self-publish. The real issues in most cases involve prestige and attention, not actual publication, and putting rejected papers online won’t make people pay attention to them, especially if (as would be likely) most scientific indexing services ignore them. Even now, a lot of technical papers get self-published online and appear in Google searches, and the purpose of many search tools is changing from simply finding out about work to filtering out the bad or irrelevant work. Making journals publish rejected papers just shifts part of the burdens and costs from the authors to the journals. Besides all this, journals generally require authors to give them the copyrights to work that they publish, and many journals will not publish material if it has appeared in some form already. As a scientific author, you are much better off retaining control of the distribution of your rejected paper, trying to improve its quality before it gets in front of a large audience, and looking for a more suitable venue than simply forcing someone to put it “out there” for you.
Good points all, Andrew, I can’t gainsay any of that. I stand corrected. I’d still like to find a system whereby when a high-powered statistician shows that my idea is 100% wrong, it is in the public record so we don’t have to do it again and again. I’m taking ideas on this one …