Anything Goes?

Ann-Sophie Barwich
3 min readMar 1, 2024

Why uphold peer review at all

Peer review is a modern invention. Although independent referees were solicited as early as 1832 by the Royal Society, science was conducted successfully largely without the formal implementation of peer review in the 1970s. Crick and Watson’s 1953 Double Helix paper was unvetted. Einstein’s Annus mirabilis papers were published in Annalen der Physik in 1905 without ever facing a critical reviewer. In fact, “only one of Einstein’s papers was ever peer-reviewed, and he was so surprised and upset that he pulled the paper and published it elsewhere” (Mastroianni in Ahmet et al., 2023). Doubts concerning the effectiveness of peer review, and whether it may be worth abolishing (Mastroianni, 2022), should be entertained rather than outright dismissed.

Two arguments for the abandonment of peer review are worth emphasizing. First is the argument from history. Peer review would have prevented major scientific discoveries throughout history. Galileo’s conception of the universe was controversial at the time. Exonerated in hindsight, Galileo relied heavily on rhetorical methods in addition to scientific observation (Feyerabend (2020[1974]), and his empirical investigations did not hold up to scrutiny by scientific standards either: “Galileo violates important rules of scientific method which were invented by Aristotle, improved by Grosseteste (among others) and canonized by logical positivists such as Popper. Galileo succeeds because he does not invariably follow these rules” (Feyerabend, 1974, 297). Opponents of Galileo had sufficient reason to reject his ideas. The case of Galileo highlights a profound consequence of peer-based authority, particularly in publications with a high rejection rate: the creation of intellectual monoculture. Peer review judges the validity of a study and an article’s claims against the backdrop of currently validated knowledge and measures. However, most breakthroughs we see as paradigmatic to science were routinely achieved in spite, not because of consensus.

Second is the argument from pluralism. Scientific pluralism holds that research advances best when it uses multiple, sometimes contradictory models and methodologies (Kellert et al., 2006). Take the Global Positioning System (Chang, 2022): GPS uses satellites locked in place by Newtonian physics and an atomic clock regulated by quantum mechanics. It is adjusted by special and general relativity to map the round planet on a geostatic grid in order to advise humans on the ground from a flat earth perspective. A reviewer may easily judge this incoherent. Yet, it works. False models can act as a means to truer theories (Wimsatt, 1987), so much so that failures drive science as much as its successes — if not more (Firestein, 2015; Barwich, 2019).

Objections to the abandonment of peer review largely involve the social status and impact of science more than concern about scientific discovery. One concern is distributing misleading or fudged studies without peer review. Science has a reputation to uphold. But given the apparent flaws of bogus studies being published despite passing peer review, the effectiveness of peer review must be called into question. Meanwhile, many scholars already read unreviewed manuscripts on preprint servers to keep up with a field’s advances, while the general public is given a false sense of security by trusting published findings due to expert review (Mastroianni, 2022).

The devaluing of “quality research” is another concern for some researchers if people can post whatever they want as research. Nonetheless, lack of professional competition to jump the review hurdles to publish in prestigious venues may reduce incentives for “low risk, high (social and media) gain” research, and even fraud. Abandoning peer review could also help address an often neglected geographical imbalance: prestige bias and slow reviewing commonly prevents scholars in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) from participating in “global science.” LMIC research is less influential globally due to the lack of pre-publication data and lower academic publication rates. Due to delayed publishing rates, and reinforcing invisibility, LMIC scientists are reluctant to discuss pre-publication data with non-close contacts (Bezuidenhout and Chakauya, 2018). Peer review can turn a world of science into a remote island.

Fear of publication anarchy as a result of “peer-freed” research might be less detrimental to science than a bottleneck monoculture. Still, this proposal will sound too radical to many academics. As perspectives differ sharply, every democratically operated endeavor is fueled by dissent for viable alternatives to emerge. Its absence thus ought to be considered for the ideal of peer review to be re-envisaged.

Image: Paul Feyerabend

--

--