Big Science & commercial science publishing = corruption of peer review & science
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2010/05/17
The conventional wisdom about science is half-a-century or more out of date. Up to roughly World War II, it was not too wide of the mark to see scientific activity as driven by the curiosity of dedicated individuals who collaborated and competed to tease out a comprehensive understanding of the natural world. No one chose a career in science as a way to wealth, because it wasn’t. By and large, mutual critiquing was based on evidence and logic, and controversies became resolved reasonably soon after the evidence became objectively compelling. Personal unpleasantries did arise, notably in disputes about priority of discovery, but they were between individuals and their close cohorts, not the guardians of a mainstream dogma branding dissenters as denialists, pseudoscientists, or criminals who should be jailed. Of course there was always resistance to new ideas, but it involved ignoring the intellectual challenge rather than seeking to kill the messengers. In the late 1930s, sociologist Robert Merton described the scientific landscape as displaying an ethos (nowadays referred to as the Mertonian Norms) in which scientists were producing a public good, sharing their work openly, conscious of and accepting the universality of scientific knowledge, and working disinterestedly to advance science rather than their own private, personal interests.
World War II brought science and its applications into high public importance: the Manhattan Project that created atomic bombs, radar that crucially helped Britain against Nazi air strikes, sonar that was invaluable in combating submarines, penicillin that revolutionized the treatment of bacterial infections, and much else. Science became prominent in political and social policy-making as never before, and scientific advice came to influence significant portions of national budgets. Governments distributed largesse to produce more scientists and more science. Universities found ways to benefit from the largesse. Business and industry also found ways to profit from this burgeoning growth of research activity.
So science became transformed from a public good to a thoroughgoingly for-profit enterprise. Scientists increasingly owed fealty to patrons, sponsors, employers, and the aims of research focused increasingly on what would be profitable, preferably in the short term, instead of on what would most advance human understanding. Scientific publication exploded and its costs rose; journals, traditionally controlled by scientific societies, came increasingly to be taken over or established by commercial publishers. As with commercial publishing in general, there was consolidation and striving for higher profits. Libraries were increasingly unable to cope with the rising costs. Before World War II, manuscripts for publication were judged without regard to fiscal matters, but nowadays costs are a salient factor. Journals of such non-profit associations as the American Chemical Society began to levy “page charges”: authors were asked to pay if their manuscripts were accepted for publication, initially perhaps $50 per page (I seem to recall), but that would seem a remarkable bargain nowadays where the charges are typically ≥$100 per printed page. Because publications constitute a researcher’s career portfolio, the stakes are high and researchers scramble for means to pay page charges, usually via research grants that allow page charges as legitimate costs of research. Entrepreneurs have realized that they can profit by putting out publications whose costs plus overhead (= profit for publisher and publisher’s employees) are borne by the authors themselves or by their research grants, and new publications are springing up at a great rate, primarily to make financial profit for the entrepreneurs and career profits for the publishing authors. It is to the advantage of authors, editors, and publishers of these for-profit ventures to put out as great a volume of material as possible, so quality has gone by the board and “peer review” tends to allow through anything that fits the prevailing viewpoint, no matter how banal, insignificant, useless. Scientific publication has become what used to be called “vanity publishing” not so long ago: Among the general public, and also to some extent in the humanities and social sciences, people who wanted to have their books published but could not meet the standards of existing publishers could pay the costs themselves. The natural inference about such “self publication” judged it as of inferior merit (though a small percentage of such works lived to prove the publishers wrong who had rejected the manuscripts). The contemporary bubble of paid-for, profit-centered scientific publication constitutes nothing short of vanity publishing.
Hand in hand with rushing to produce anything that doesn’t rock the boat goes a fierce determination to exclude anything that threatens the bandwagon and gravy train. Peer review, like other aspects of science, has become thoroughgoingly corrupted by the change from “little science” to “Big Science”, which means commercial science, for-profit science. It has become routine for editors to choose manuscript reviewers with a view to getting the advice they want, namely, something that will not rock the profitable mainstream boat. Don’t try to publish anything that questions HIV/AIDS theory, or Big-Bang theory, or human-caused global warming theory, or Darwinian evolution, or string theory, or an asteroid cause of dinosaur extinctions, or any other prevailing contemporary consensus.
The foregoing repeats much of what I talked about at the Oakland Rethinking AIDS Conference, but I do so not to repeat myself but as an introduction to recommending a pertinent series of essays by Suzan Mazur. They are based on interviews with scientists and observers of science who have specific experiences to recount of the corruption of peer review. I was alerted to these by an interview of Suzan Mazur on the Jeff Farias Show (“Danger! Big Science Peer Review“).
Links there lead to these other excellent and pertinent items:
The Peer Review “Fig Leaf”: Vera Hassner Sharav, 2010/04/01
Free Science Peer Review From Cultish Conspiracy, 2010/02/03
David Noble: Peer Review, Where Are The Scholars?, 2010/02/26
Margulis: Peer Review Or “Cycle Of Submission”?, 2010/01/05
Jeff Farias Show: Altenberg 16 – Evolution Exposé, 2009/11/26
The Altenberg 16: An Exposé Of The Evolution Industry, 2009/08/26