The absurdity of peer review

Mark Humphiries writes:

Or consider this modern take on a certain scientist’s annus mirabilis:

“The past year of 1905 has been a remarkable for one Herr Einstein, who proposed no less than four theories new to modern physics in a series of papers. His first was on a much-anticipated explanation of the photoelectric effect (not yet peer reviewed), the second on how Brownian motion arises from the collision of invisible particles (not yet peer reviewed), the third on the equivalence between mass and energy (not yet peer reviewed), and the final paper updates Newton’s mechanics to be more accurate for objects moving close to the speed of light (not yet peer reviewed).”

First, the food for thought.

A brief history of peer review:

But the use of peer review was patchy at best until the 1970s, when it became the norm at all kinds of scientific journals. Indeed the journal Nature, for many the pinnacle venue for publishing science, didn’t start peer review until 1973.

It’s a tedious grind to the publication. Get a negative peer review, you’d have to start hunting for the next one. Submission to journals is a pain because each of them has a specific format which no one bothers to standardise. Even at Elsevier, different journals usually have requirements at loggerheads. Unless you prep your paper for multiple journal submissions or have a team of undergrad students willing to go through the drudgery.

Mark hits the nail for peer review in the pandemic times:

Science in the time of Covid-19 has had to be nimble, quick on its feet, has had to show its findings to the world without the layers of review-and-revise. We’ve needed rapid research into models of transmission, into immunity and reinfection, into public health messaging and effective interventions, into drugs to treat symptoms, machines to support the severely ill, and the development of radically new types of vaccine. So pre-prints, those manuscripts put on the internet for all to read before peer review, became the weapon of choice. Long common in physics, pre-prints in biology and especially medicine exploded in number during the pandemic.

Pre-prints won’t cut because they are not peer reviewed. We often hear it from my esteemed colleagues on Twitter they won’t touch a survival curve from an article which isn’t peer reviewed. Or that they back studies from “randomised trials”, even if the summation doesn’t apply to a vast majority of patients due to flawed inclusion criteria. It’s the absurdity. Medicine is empirical and radiation oncology-more so. While there are attempts to push for standardisation, most ideas have been pushed wayward. I had mentioned this before too – one of my papers got rejected because I had the temerity to suggest that modulation regimes require validation in trials; having a dosimetric advantage isn’t sufficient. De-escalation trials are the latest rage now!

Mark gets it right here too:

Which means that two groups of reviewers, given the same set of things to review, will agree on almost nothing. And none of these failures should be surprising: anyone with a basic grasp of statistics knows that a sample of, at most, four opinions is a terrible basis for any decision. Yet this is exactly what we do in peer review….Why then do we still have peer review? I’d wager that it’s a combination of simple inertia, and because journals rely on it for gate-keeping. When it did appear, peer review’s job was to help out editors who received papers beyond their expertise, and wanted some advice on whether to publish or not. Now it has become all about who gets chosen to be published in the most selective journals, who can convince a handful of reviewers their paper is worthy of publishing in that journal

These are independent opinions on the blog. It has no bearing on the process of understanding peer review. Committees look for “outstanding stars” even if they have more burnish than substance. Science has become extremely risk averse (and so is academia), which stymies genuflection of ideas and methodologies. Peer review is more of a shackle than freedom. We need to radically overhaul the idea of publication itself. That’s a wretched metric of what’s on offer. Why not independent blogs, instead?