Whose Peer Review?

I am spending some time with family who are visiting from out of town. Sorry for being AWOL. But I managed to read a very good article by the ever excellent Dean Baker: Horrors! Unpublished Study Used to Raise Health Questions About Fracking. In it, he discusses a very important unpublished study by doctoral candidate Elaine K. Hill at Cornell University. She finds a shockingly high correlation between fracking and low birth weight babies. You should read the article.

Baker is mostly interested in Andrew Revkin at the New York Times who complains that Hill is unethical to circulate her unpublished research. I think that Revkin’s intentions are good, but he doesn’t understand how research works. Just on the most basic level, journal publication is so slow that for years it has acted as nothing more than a historical marker. All the real research dissemination is done at conferences and through the circulation of unpublished work. And even if time weren’t an issue, most research needs more than two reviewers. The new process allows many peers to comment and correct a paper before it is finalized in a form only later scientists are likely to read.

I commented on the article as it relates to my work in global warming. It mostly came out of my frustration with a friend who sent me a paper he had written about Christian ethics. In it, he discussed global warming. (He was a graduate student with me, but left the program before getting a degree.) But all of his science was based upon polemical pseudoscience by Arthur B. Robinson—all from papers in a supposedly peer reviewed journal. It calls into question the whole idea of “peer review.” Exactly who are these peers? Some people, like my friend, will okay bad science because they want to make a political point. And if enemies only review each other’s papers, nothing will ever be published. (Imagine Newton reviewing Leibniz!)

Here is my comment:

It has long bugged me that people make a big deal about global warming science coming from peer reviewed journals. It isn’t the paper-by-paper peer reviewing that makes the science valid. Global warming appears to be true because despite great effort, no one has been able to kick a hole in the data or the models.

In general, the peer review system works well. But there are plenty of problems with it. It is more troublesome in keeping controversial papers out of print than in letting bad papers in. For example, work like Hill could, under the right conditions, be kept out of print or relegated to a minor journal. Such is why powerful institutions and advisers are so important.

But lots of pseudoscience has been published in “peer reviewed,” if not reputable, journals. Some of the worst denial literature has been published in specialized “peer reviewed” journals. I was once the assistant to a conscientious journal editor, but I saw clearly that an unethical editor could send articles out to friendly colleagues who would sign off on total dreck. Want to “peer review” a denialist pseudoscientific paper? Send it to Arthur Robinson and Fred Singer for review! It’s like Mitt Romney getting his budget peer reviewed by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Traditional peer review means little. But the kind of peer review that Hill is getting because of the wide circulation of her paper is the very best kind of peer review. What she has done is absolutely right, especially given the practical importance of her study’s results.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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