Guest essay by Abzats.
The most exciting period in science was, arguably, 1895-1945. It was marked by discoveries that changed the foundations of modern science: X-rays, quantum mechanics, superconductivity, relativity theory and nuclear energy. Then, compare this with the next 50 years in science. Incomparable. Nothing of that scale or impact. Yes, technology has advanced, but fundamental science – has come to a crawl. Have you ever wondered why? What changed as the 20th century grew older? Among other things, research budgets and the number of PhDs increased exponentially. This cannot be bad.
Well, it can. All depends on the rules of the game. And they have changed. The change went largely unnoticed by the general public. In this article I will try to bring everyone up to speed. I will explain to non-scientists the “business model” of modern science. People may want to know. After all, scientists are burning public money, billions a year. And, I am quite sure, those who get my message will react with “you cannot be serious!” And leaders of organized crime will be pulling their hair out in despair: “why did not we think of this first?”
Single most important element of the modern science machinery is the peer review process. It was introduced a long time ago, but it took over the scientific community at about mid 20th century. Why is it important? Every scientist must publish his or her work. If you do not publish, you will not advance your career. This works the same way as it does, say, for a businessman – if you cannot close a single deal, you are finished. Most journals have adopted peer review policies. Peer review process is also standard for research grants competitions. It is also the foundation of the tenure and promotion process at universities.
Well then, what is it exactly? To save time, let me explain peer review of papers submitted for publication in scientific journals. Once a journal receives a manuscript the journal sends it to 2-3 reviewers, who are experts in the field. Each reviewer writes a report that includes a recommendation on whether or not the manuscript should be published and advice to the author on how the manuscript can be improved. So far so good. Nothing seems wrong. This should work wonderfully. Well, in theory only. In reality it does not. In reality it is more of a disaster.
Let me explain. All the reviewers are anonymous. That is, they know your name but you do not know theirs. This is the first red flag: unless you plan to do something really bad, why do you insists being anonymous? The second red flag is that none of them gets paid. Those who believe in Santa Claus will say, well, they are just nice people volunteering their time to help advance science. Those who work for a living will smell a rat. I can give you one reason: being a reviewer gives you power over other people. Some just enjoy it, others use it to advance their own agenda. Such as approve manuscripts that praise reviewer’s own research and reject those that criticize it.
The power reviewers have is enormous. Put yourself in author’s shoes. You worked hard for six months on a manuscript. Your work is brilliant, if you publish it, not only will you advance your career, it will make you a leader in the field. Then, the manuscript goes to a reviewer who just happens to be having a bad day. He browses through the manuscript for 20-30 minutes, does not like the name of the author (never heard of him, “wrong” ethnicity, or … whatever), and rejects the paper. Can you appeal? No. You can write an angry letter, but you cannot call your attorney. Because nobody is breaking the law. because there isn’t any.
They can ruin your career and drive research, often funded by the public, to a dead end, and they are not accountable to anyone. In such a system, for most scientists the best, or should I say the only, way to advance their careers is by kissing up to those in higher positions: in person, in manuscripts, and in the whole research strategy. This has been going on for decades. As a result of this “natural selection”, the scientific community has been consumed by cronyism. Parts of it are rotten to the core.
Let me give you one example. Last year I attended a Radiation Research Society meeting. It was held in Maui, Hawaii. Why? Obviously it is a great spot for a vacation. You will not find any major research centers in the neighborhood. If you are still thinking of defending this choice, get this – the conference was held at the Grand Wailea Resort. The thing about this place is that luxury here is obscene. It is a kind of place a bum would go to after winning a lottery. And, guess what, I believe I have seen a few. Never before had I seen an invited speaker at a major conference making bodily function jokes. Here I had seen more than one, including a recipient of a lifetime achievement award spelling a word for body waste and thinking it was funny. Do not get me wrong, I am not judging here. But, if he jokes at a preschooler level, would you trust him to be a reviewer of your work? Do I need to mention who paid for the event? Or, that it took place during the worst economic crisis in decades?
A couple of other problems. Reviewers have no real motivation to work fast. Here is what you would see when checking status of your manuscript on a journal’s web site: manuscript to referee, unable to report – sent to another referee, and so on, several times, for weeks and months. Nonsense. With all the technology available, a manuscript can be published within hours. But, no, it has to sit for weeks on somebody’s desk. Somebody who just does not care enough. Or, worse, someone who is interested in delaying the process. The reviewer may be working on exactly the same problem and wants his paper published first.
Another problem that extremely frustrates me as an author are suggestions reviewers make on how I should improve my manuscript. Originally, may be, it was a good idea – your peers offering you advice that will help you improve your work. But it all has gone very wrong. These days these are not suggestions or advice – these are demands. You change your manuscript exactly as you are told, or it will be rejected. I am a well established scientist, why do I have to take advice from someone who would not even reveal his identity or credentials? And, finally, this system is perfect for stealing ideas. After you submit your manuscript you have no control of who will access it. All you can hope for is human decency, and it is not always there.
This brings us to the root of the problem. People, including scientists, are flawed. Few will miss a chance to stab competition in the back and abuse whatever little power they may have. I am not the first to criticize the peer review process. But I am not. Criticizing implies it can be fixed. It cannot. It was a bad idea all along. Then, what can be done? There is no quick and easy solution.
But I know where to start – ban peer review. And I know this can be done, this nonsense can be dealt with. This is not brain surgery, this is all about leveling the playing field, making rules for fair and open competition. These problems have been solved in all other spheres. Only scientists for whatever bizarre reasons received a special treatment and the right to live in lawlessness. Which is so wrong, I cannot find words to describe. Science is one most important sphere of human activity.
Who will find cure from cancer? Who will prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable? Scientists. Not those from the beaches of Grand Wailea. Real ones. I hope we can still find some and reverse, before it’s too late, the depletion of brains. Let’s get started. Ban peer review!