Sunday 28 April 2013

The value of peer review for science and the press

The value of peer review keeps on producing heated debates. An interesting example was the weekend that physics professor Richard Muller wrote an op-ed in the New York Times. Some claim that Anthony Watts halted his blog for 2 days and released a scientific manuscript and an accompanying press release on the same weekend to steal attention away from Mullers op-ed. Both the op-ed and the press release were about scientific claims that had not passed peer review. Thus the Washington Post asked: Is it okay to seek publicity for a work that is not peer reviewed?
Watts et al. manuscript

The eventful weekend at end of July 2012, resulted in two worthwhile blog post in the New York Times (Andrew C. Revkin at dotEarth) and the Washington Post (Jason Samenow).

The manuscript was clearly released prematurely and had serious methodological problems. A few days after the press release and the blog reviews, Anthony Watts still wrote: "I’m hoping to post up a revised draft, addressing many of those comments and corrections in the next day or two." And he opened a "work page" for the manuscript, which is so quiet you can hear crickets. Just when no one expected it any more, the zombie manuscript came back from the undead; this March Watts wrote about this manuscript: "we are preparing a paper for submission".

I am not a native speaking. May I ask, if you write "we are preparing", that indicates an ongoing action, right? Is there any lower limit on the intensity of this action?

The other side of the question about seeking the press before peer review is should a journalist only write about peer-reviewed studies? Further questions that came up since are: Is it unscientific to cite non-reviewed studies? Should the IPCC limit itself to reviewing only the peer-reviewed literature? Is peer review gate keeping? Is peer review necessary?

As often the context is important. What the value of peer review is, depends on who you are? An expert or not, a journalist or a newspaper reader? Another important part of the context is how controversial the finding is.

The Value of Peer Review for Science

Peer review gives an article credibility. As such peer review is "just" a filter, it does not guarantee that an article is right. Many peer-reviewed articles contain errors, many ideas outside of the peer-reviewed literature are worthwhile. However, on average the quality of peer-reviewed work is better. Thus peer-reviewed work is more likely worthy of your attention.

If you are a scientist and an idea/study is about something you are knowledgeable about there is no reason to limit yourself exclusively to peer-reviewed articles, but it is smart to prefer them. A scientist will only use peer review to preselect, because you simply cannot read and check everything. Life is short and attention a very limited resource. I also see no problem in citing studies that are not peer-reviewed, whether scientific reports or conference contributions. I do feel that by citing such studies, you give them some of your reputation, you become partially a reviewer and should read them as careful as a reviewer would.

Peer review is far from perfect. It is not intended to and cannot prevent fraud. Some bad papers will get through and some good ones will be rejected. This can be annoying for the scientists involved, but given that peer review is just a filter, it is not that bad for science in general. It is only since the second world war that peer review has become the standard. We also had scientific progress before that time.