Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

Networking For A Better Future - News and perspectives you may not find in the media

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January 29, 2004

Peer Review - Politics of Science?

According to a recent article on, the White House is looking for ways to more closely control what scientists are allowed to say in studies that are to be used by the US government in forming policy in the areas of health and the environment.

The peer review system, whereby a scientific article is scrutinized by a scientist's colleagues - actually often by an anonymous selection of "guardians of orthodoxy" who work with the major scientific magazines - has already come under fire for hampering the open scientific discussion of new ideas. With government getting into the act to "select" the peer reviewers, we may see science degrading into a political tool, rather than a way to ascertain the truth about issues of interest.

Not that government is new to attempts at "damage control" by changing scientific findings. Here a recent report from

"DOCTORING DATA: A new report reveals that political appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) doctored a study that revealed racial disparities in healthcare. The report, commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and seven colleagues, compares the draft report prepared by HHS scientists to the final version, edited by political appointees. In an effort to minimize the problem, political appointees deleted key sections of the report. Deleted: conclusion by HHS scientists that healthcare disparities are "national problems." Deleted: findings by HHS scientists on the social costs of healthcare disparities (including lost productivity, needless disability and early death). Deleted: key examples of health care disparities, including findings that racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, die of HIV and be subjected to physical restraints in nursing homes."

January 22, 2004

White House Seeking Control Over Scientific Peer Review of Environmental, Health Research Which Shapes Federal Policies

Environmental and health studies conducted for or used by the federal government would require White House approval before their release, under a proposal now under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The plan would also give the White House authority to select which scientists take part in the system known as peer review -- the process by which fellow researchers evaluate the validity and reliability of studies before they are published.

Critics fear such a plan would undermine the impartiality of research that guides government policies and regulations. For example, it would open the door for the Administration to hand-select industry-friendly scientists to review studies that investigate the safety of chemicals in our food and consumer products, or studies that examine the environmental impact of energy plant emissions. The White House has frequently expressed its commitment to easing regulations for American industries. [1]

In a January 9 letter to the OMB, 20 former top federal agency officials, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, urged the White House to drop its proposal. The letter -- signed by former EPA Administrators Carol Browner and Russell Train; former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich; former Assistant Secretaries for Occupational Safety and Health Eula Bingham and Gerard Scannell; and others -- warned that the proposal, "in its current form, could damage the federal system for protecting public health and the environment." [2]

Currently, each federal agency controls peer review of its own projects. The government's rules to ensure research quality are already less stringent than those used by leading biomedical journals. For example, these journals require authors to disclose who paid for the research; and the journals will only publish studies done under contracts in which the investigators have the right to publish regardless of the results. Federal agencies do not have these requirements, nor do they consistently attempt to find out who paid for the studies. [3]

Far from ensuring the validity of the peer review process, the plan's critics assert that allowing the White House to control it would only add a layer of politics to what should be a purely scientific process. [4]

[1] "White House Seeks Control on Health, Safety," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 11, 2004.
[2] Letter to Joshua B. Bolton, Director of the OMB from 20 former agency officials, Jan 9, 2004.
[3] Michaels D, Wagner W. Disclosure in Regulatory Science. Science. 2003; 302:2073.
[4] "Peer Review Plan Draws Criticism," Washington Post, Jan. 15, 2004.

- - -

How to Fix Peer Review
Separating its two functions - improving manuscripts and judging their scientific merit - would help

(published in The Scientist)

By David Kaplan

Despite its importance as the ultimate gatekeeper of scientific publication and funding, peer review is known to engender bias, incompetence, excessive expense, ineffectiveness, and corruption. A surfeit of publications has documented the deficiencies of this system.1-4 In September, the fifth in a series of international congresses concerned with how peer review can be improved will convene in Chicago. Yet so far, in spite of the teeth gnashing, nothing is being chewed.

Investigation of the peer-review system has failed to provide validation for its use.1 In one study, previously published articles were altered to disguise their origin and resubmitted to the journals that had originally published the manuscripts.5 Most of these altered papers were not recognized and were rejected on supposed "scientific grounds." Other investigators found that agreement among reviewers about whether specific manuscripts should be published was no greater than would be expected by chance alone.6

Peer review subsumes two functions. First, peer reviewers attempt to improve manuscripts by offering constructive criticisms about concrete elements such as the application of a technique, the strength of results, or the cogency of an argument. The second function of peer review is to render a decision about the biological significance of the findings so that the manuscript can be prioritized for publication. I propose reforming peer review so that the two functions are independent.

Review of a manuscript would be solicited from colleagues by the authors. The first task of these reviewers would be to identify revisions that could be made to improve the manuscript. Second, the reviewers would be responsible for writing an evaluation of the revised work. This assessment would be mostly concerned with the significance of the findings, and the reviewers would sign it.

After receiving the final assessments from several different reviewers, the authors could decide to submit to a journal, sending the manuscript and the signed reviews together. The editors, carrying out the second function of peer review, would then decide to publish or not based solely on this material. The reviewers' identities would be revealed in the publication.

I believe there would be several significant effects of this change in peer review. First, the authors would submit only positive assessments. Consequently, reviews would emphasize why a manuscript should be published instead of why it shouldn't be. Second, investigators would be less likely to publish insignificant findings. They would have to ask colleagues to put their names on the manuscript; consequently, the tendency would be to ask for support for more complete and more compelling sets of findings.

Third, reviewers would be forced to account for their comments. They could not perform just a cursory look without the authors realizing the review was not insightful and did not represent an honest effort. Fourth, although it would be possible to have close friends and relatives review a manuscript, the editors would see who was supporting publication. In their deliberations, the editors would consider the breadth of the reviewers and their relationships to the authors and to the conceptualization promulgated in the manuscript.

Fifth, the editors would be free from adjudicating between authors and reviewers. They could concentrate on the specific arguments put forth for publication. Moreover, the process would be considerably streamlined, since there would be no need to send the manuscript out for review. This revision of peer review would change the incentives for all involved. The authors would tend to publish results that represent more complete findings and be more satisfied with the outcome, because they could exert lots of control over the review process. The reviewers would tend to be more honest in their evaluations, not wanting to praise work they consider flawed, because their names would be attached to it. Reviewers would not give a cursory and willfully negative evaluation, because the authors could simply not forward their comments. It would be in the reviewers' best interests to help improve manuscripts that have flaws but are potentially important.

The editors would emphasize publication of manuscripts that have the broadest support among scientists in the relevant community or that have the greatest potential to influence the community. Their jobs would be easier because the number of manuscripts submitted would be fewer, although of more substance. This tendency would be facilitated by editors' publicizing the stringent acceptance requirements. For example, editors could request manuscripts with support from reviewers from the same institution and from other institutions. They could request reviewers in the same field and reviewers in related fields.

Peer review is broken. It needs to be overhauled, not just tinkered with. The incentives should be changed so that: authors are more satisfied and more likely to produce better work, the reviewing is more transparent and honest, and journals do not have to manage an unwieldy and corrupt system that produces disaffection and misses out on innovation.

1. T Jefferson et al, "Measuring the quality of editorial peer review," J Am Med Assoc 2002, 287: 2786-90. [Publisher Full Text]

2. PA Lawrence "The politics of publication," Nature 2003, 422: 259-61. [PubMed Abstract][Publisher Full Text]

3. DF Horrobin "The philosophical basis of peer review and the suppression of innovation," J Am Med Assoc 1990, 263: 1438-41. [Publisher Full Text]

4. M Enserink "Peer review and quality: A dubious connection?" Science 2001, 293: 2187-8. [PubMed Abstract][Publisher Full Text]

5. DP Peters, SJ Ceci "Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again." Behav Brain Sci 1982, 5:187-96.

6. PM Rothwell, CN Martyn "Reproducibility of peer review in clinical neuroscience," Brain 2000, 123: 1964-9. [PubMed Abstract][Publisher Full Text]

See also:

President Bush's administration distorts scientific findings and seeks to manipulate experts' advice to avoid information that runs counter to its political beliefs, a private organization of scientists asserted yesterday...

White House Minimized the Risks of Mercury in Proposed Rules, Scientists Say

The Scientist - FEATURE (February 2006):
Is Peer Review Broken?
Submissions are up, reviewers are overtaxed, and authors are lodging complaint after complaint about the process at top-tier journals. What's wrong with peer review?

Peer Review Is Mediocre at Best
Regarding bias in "science" and the utter balderdash that passes for peer-reviewed science, I sometimes feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. Well, thank God -- another blogger has thrown down the gauntlet on the topic.

"Most people think peer review is some infallible system for evaluating knowledge. It's not. Here's what peer review does not do: it does not try to verify the accuracy of the content. They do not have access to the raw data. They don't re-run the statistical calculations to see if they're correct. They don't look up references to see if they are appropriate/accurate."

Debating Peer Review and its more open Alternatives
"The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability not the validity of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong."

A re-review of peer review: Leading journal looks to end the 'review nightmare'
Speaking of the launch of the policy, Miranda Robertson said 'Of course journals must do their best to ensure that the research they publish is valid, but the primary function of a journal editor is to promote the dissemination of research results, not to obstruct it. I hope this experiment will show that referees, authors and journals can work together to accelerate the publication of important research.'

Three myths about peer review
What's the future of scientific peer review? The way science is communicated is currently changing rapidly, leading to speculation that the peer review system itself might change. For example, the wildly successful physics preprint arXiv is only very lightly moderated, which has led many people to wonder if the peer review process might perhaps die out, or otherwise change beyond recognition.

Christopher Turner: Peer Review is open to Fraud
As long as publications and grant support are used as critical benchmarks for career progress, the peer review system will remain vulnerable to fraud. There is growing dissatisfaction with this system and the emergence of online "open access" models suggest something better is on the horizon, though for some it may not arrive soon enough. At the moment it appears we are stuck with the classic peer-review system because, much like democracy, it may not always be pretty but what else is there?


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Thursday January 29 2004
updated on Wednesday February 29 2012

URL of this article:


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Readers' Comments

I would like to share a recent email received from

Promoting Openness, Full Disclosure, and Accountability

An original essay by Dr. Marc Girard, a mathematician and physician who serves on the editorial board of Medicine Veritas, (The Journal of Medical Truth) a peer reviewed, open source journal "Dedicated to Leveling out the Medical Playing Field."

Dr. Girard is not impressed with the disingenuous displays of "outrage" at individual scientists who got caught committing fraud-e.g., Hwang Woo Suk:

"the main advantage of individual failures," he writes, "is that they give a pretext for virtuous protestations from those whose success is based upon systemic failures." Scientific integrity: "Truth" versus method

Vera Hassner Sharav


Dr. Marc Girard

Although I am not myself a geneticist, the German journal, GID, requested me to comment about the Hwang story (2), probably because I have recently written that due to the dishonest compromises of most experts "medical research has exerted a disastrous influence over other branches of science" (1). Fortunately for me, and alas for Science, a recent story of gross fraud concerning anti-inflammatory agents (3) demonstrates that the problem goes far beyond genetics (or South Korea.). And it is also intimately related to the specificity of science as a human activity.

Whatever the philosopher K. Popper may have said, the pursuit of Truth is by no means characteristic of the sciences: an honest judge who sentences (possibly, to death) an accused, a sincere lover who wants to be sure that his/her feelings are reciprocal, are far more obsessed with "truth" than a researcher in meteorology who knows that the rigour of his observations and the sophistication of his mathematical models notwithstanding, his results are marked by a strong degree of uncertainty. And who would deny that a meteorologist behaves as a scientist far more than a judge or a lover?

The specificity of science and, more precisely, its greatness, is not a quest for Truth, but far more simply: the quest for the perfect method. What sets scientists apart is the fascination of shedding our innate subjectivity in order to provide others with the means of replicating our observations and results. In this quest for sharing with others - which also takes the form of a request for their critical feedback - the system of peer-review, in one form or another, has always been pivotal for the credibility of science: every one of us knows its limitations and is able to quote a number of its historical failures, but the sheer reality is that nobody has ever been able to conceive a more reliable alternative.

It is probably not true that the history of sciences includes a number of "unrecognised" geniuses: easily accepted or not, those researchers who made a significant contribution to a science were those who eventually managed to introduce their ideas and make them recognized by their peers. This is neither an easy nor a democratic process, but this has been the normal way of being "a scientist" as long as the ultimate target has been to share with others: after all, being regularly rejected by peers in a kind of methodological failure. In its essence, scientific activity has always been asceticism, and certainly not a means for personal recognition or social promotion. And in Western history, if the Christian religion has most often been an obstacle to sciences, this was not because scientific "truth" was an alternative to God (which it is not): this was because scientific asceticism - as an appeal to go out of one's ego and to reach a certain order of objectivation, if not of objectivity - was a genuine alternative to that rooted in the notion of original sin. Another form of virtue.

In the meantime, however, scientific research has become a road for individual success - which was probably not the main impulse of our great ancestors such as Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, Freud or Planck. And the pressure to gain success has been such that it has circumvented our control system. If co-authors, within the functioning of one given scientific team, are demonstrably unable to guarantee the reliability of their own results - as is obviously the case in recent stories (2;3) - who will seriously believe that external peers, who devote a maximum of a few hours to the review of a manuscript, will do better?

Experience, on the contrary, suggests that the situation is even worse. It is a pity to compare the volume of editorials devoted to piously denounce individual failures versus the scant attention editors spend for detecting those fallacies which have a genuine impact on society. After all, the presumed falsifications of Hwang did not trigger any change in the practical management of people, which is not the case with a number of appalling investigations "turning us all into patients" via the fallacies of high blood pressure, menopause disorders, high cholesterol, etc. (4) - for which a dime a dozen papers have been published in the greatest journals, which is precisely the background of their success.

If a "scientific" journal is not able to recognize as fraudulent, an investigation (by one European researcher) whose 250 patients were supposedly born on the same day, who will be able to rely on huge epidemiological investigations-including thousands of patients monitored during years in the farthest parts of developing countries?

Whereas counterfeit drugs from East or far-East are becoming an obsession of pharmaceutical leaders, how should we interpret the concomitant tendency of the same firms to export their most crucial clinical trials to the same geographical areas? And how do we explain the depressingly lax reviewing process by leading medical journals that publish such studies nonetheless? Is it not far more simple to control the chemical content of a pill than to check millions of data recorded over years in thousands of unidentified patients? As I said some time ago in a meeting organised by the pharmaceutical industry: the main advantage of individual failures is that they give a pretext for virtuous protestations from those whose success is based upon systemic failures.

This is a critical moment: if the system of peer-review is not any longer able to guarantee the reliability of scientific research, this means that science has lost its way. The reason for this disaster is too clear: the power of money. In academic institutions, the current dynamics of research is more favourable to the ability of getting grants - collecting money and spending it - than to scientific imagination or creativity. The business of publishing is fuelled by a continual production of new data of problematic interest, whereas there is no place now to interpret, correct or synthesize previous results . A striking illustration of this state of affairs is the absurd rule of some medical journals to limit the time for submitting correspondence on a paper to 15 days. If science is the target, there is no deadline to put an old result in a new perspective - or more simply to detect an inconsistency in a previous investigation.

Thus, besides precautionary principles such as the declaration of interests, why do we not think about a simple measure the reach of which could be considerable: a systematic rejection of a work by journals when its budget would have gone beyond a certain limit? Like the systematic rejection of biomedical research which did not comply with the requirement of participants' informed consent, such a measure would mean that sciences have greater values than a presumed "truth" whatever its cost: i.e. the conviction that too much money is the surest way to ruin the fundamental prerequisite of peer-control.


1. Girard M. Reformulating the principles of Hippocrates. Medical Veritas 2005;2:682.

2. Anon. Writing a new ending for a story of scientific fraud. Lancet 2006;367:1.

3. Horton R. Expression of concern: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer. Lancet 2006 Jan 21;367(9506):196.

4. Moynihan, R; Cassels, A. Selling Sickness. How drug companies are turning us all into patients. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin; 2005.

5. Feyerabend, P. Against Method. Humanities Press; 1975.

6. Sadovnick AD, Scheifele DW. School-based hepatitis B vaccination programme and adolescent multiple sclerosis [letter]. Lancet 2000 Feb 12;355(9203):549-50.

7. Wraith DC, Goldman M, Lambert PH. Vaccination and autoimmune disease: what is the evidence? Lancet 2003 Nov 15;362(9396):1659-66.

Posted by: Sepp on January 31, 2006 04:18 PM


Here is an interesting article that appeared in USA Today - January 2007:

Is this the end of the scholarly journal?

By Gregory M. Lamb, The Christian Science Monitor

Scientific advances sometimes come as lightning flashes of inspiration. But when scientists sit down to record and take credit for what they've found, they still use much the same method they have for decades an article published in a scholarly journal.
But science's hidebound traditions are changing. The Internet has opened up new forms of publishing in which anyone in the world can find and read a scientific paper. And papers themselves are becoming more interactive, leading readers to the underlying data, videos, and discussions that augment their value. With blogs and e-books providing easy means of self-publishing, some observers are speculating that scholarly journals and their controversial system of peer reviews may not be needed at all.

"The traditional journal publishing medium we've grown used to really needs to evolve and change because that's not the way people are accessing information," says Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Dr. Gerstein cowrote an article, "The Death of the Scientific Paper," which appeared last year on, an online science magazine.

If the hopes of innovators bear fruit, scientific advances will come ever more quickly as online publishing makes past research easier to access and share widely.

Two new scientific publications, both available only online, may signal what's ahead. The PLoS ONE (, a journal begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) last month, aims to put as many new scientific articles as possible on the Internet to be read by anyone, free of charge. The Journal of Visualized Experiments, or JoVE (, is a kind of YouTube for researchers. It operates on the theory that a short video showing how an experiment is done is better than thousands of words that attempt to describe it.

At PLoS ONE, which aspires to be a general science journal along the lines of Science and Nature, the papers themselves are only a starting point. Readers can annotate, comment on, and critique the findings: Their contributions become permanently attached to the original article. At least one commentator has likened this process to a kind of "electronic Talmud," in which the original document receives elaborate commentary and discussion that over time adds greatly to its value.

In coming months, says Chris Surridge, the managing editor of PLoS ONE, readers also will be able to rate papers on their quality, such as how surprising or groundbreaking the results were much in the way Netflix subscribers rate movies they rent using one- to five-star ratings. In this sense, PLoS ONE is moving toward a Web 2.0 model, which focuses on user-generated content strategies already used by websites such as,, or

For years, traditional "peer review" has come under fire. A jury of three experts, the peer reviewers, assess each article and recommend only those that they feel represent the most significant new work. At many elite scientific journals, fewer than 10 of the articles submitted are accepted. Many of the rejected articles eventually travel down the "food chain" to be published in a plethora of less prestigious (and less noticed) specialty journals.

A year ago, the respected U.S. journal Science was forced to retract two papers it had published about stem cells. The articles had been submitted by a South Korean team led by Hwang Woo-Suk. Peer reviewers, as well as the editors, had failed to detect the fraud.

In general, peer reviewers, themselves researchers pressed for time, don't try to re-create experiments and rarely ask to see the raw data that supports a paper's conclusions. While peer review is expected to separate the wheat from the chaff, it's "slow, expensive, profligate of academic time, highly subjective, prone to bias, easily abused, poor at detecting gross defects, and almost useless for detecting fraud," summed up one critic in BMJ, the British medical journal, in 1997.

"There's a lot of discussion [in the scientific community] about how peer review doesn't work," Mr. Surridge says. "It's not a great way to decide [what to publish]. It's just the only way we have at the moment."

PLoS ONE takes a different tack. While articles receive a basic screening, they don't have to attain the standard of representing groundbreaking work in order to be published. An article only has to be based on solid science. The idea is that the more valid research is published, the better, as it contributes to an online database.

"If it is science, [if] it is well done, [and if] it provides a valuable contribution to scientific literature, we can publish it," Surridge says. He expects about two-thirds of those papers submitted to PLoS ONE to be accepted.

Since its launch Dec. 20, PLoS ONE has published well over 100 papers and expects to publish 15 to 20 more per week. Readers access the articles for free. PLoS ONE pays its way by charging authors $1,250 to publish an article. While that might seem a barrier to publication, Surridge says most research is financed by grants or large institutions, meaning individual scientists rarely have to pay themselves. But just in case, PLoS ONE is waiving the fee for any authors who request it.

Moshe Prisker and Nikita Bernstein are taking another approach, using the Web's ability to deliver video easily with JoVE. While scientific concepts can be very simple, "the actual doing of the [laboratory] experiments is very difficult," says Dr. Prisker, a neural-stem-cell researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Traditionally, he says, scientists have resorted to wandering from lab to lab asking, "Do you know how to do this or do that? They're basically asking someone with previous experience to show them."

In its first three months, JoVE has posted 18 videos ranging from five to 15 minutes showing techniques such as "Nuclear transfer in mouse oocytes." They get a modest vetting from scientists in the field to make sure they are sound. The site is free to view and charges nothing to post videos. Prisker says that he and Mr. Bernstein, both volunteers, hope that the journal will someday pay for itself through ads from manufacturers of lab equipment (the "Google model," he says).

Other journals are beginning to employ video in some articles, but JoVE is the first to make video images the primary means of conveying information. Brief articles, voice-overs, or captions accompany the moving images.

"Video gives you this ability for unambiguous representation of experiments," Prisker says. "I'm sure that video publication will become a significant force [in online journals]." Nearly all of the early reaction to the fledgling journal has been positive. Visitors to the JoVE website say, "This should have been done long ago," Prisker says.

Since the early days of the Web, observers have speculated that scientists might simply post new research on their own or in communal websites and let search engines find it, thereby bypassing the peer-reviewed journals altogether. If the research proves valuable, other sites will link to it, and the results would be "published" far faster than waiting for a journal to accept them.

Already, an online database called arXiv (, hosted by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., contains more than 400,000 scientific papers posted by their authors without peer review. (The papers often appear later in peer-reviewed journals). Its comprehensiveness makes arXiv (pronounced "archive") a valuable tool, Gerstein, the Yale researcher, says. If someone claims to make a new discovery, anyone can search this database and say, "No, you didn't. It's in the arXiv."

Nonetheless, Gerstein says he thinks scientific journals, and some kind of peer review, will be around for a long time. Publishing in prestigious journals is "deeply intertwined with [scientists'] reputations and their promotions," he says. "You still want to get the stamp of approval of a journal."

Posted by: Sepp on January 24, 2007 12:21 PM


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