Home > climategate, science > The inconvenient truth about peer review

The inconvenient truth about peer review

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I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on man-made global warming, a few years ago. What with dire warnings of rising sea levels, more droughts, hurricanes and floods around the world, drowning polar bears and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitos poised to ravage Europe, the film certainly delivered its key message. I was depressed for a week afterwards.

It’s a shame that it would appear that global warming may well be little, if not nothing, to do with human activity (specifically CO2 levels) at all. Worse, ‘climategate‘ as this whole saga is now referred to, has been denounced by some to be all shady politics rather than based on proper science. Further details on this can be found on the excellent Watts Up With That blog, amongst many others.

Anyway, however this issue plays out, one aspect was particularly interesting to me – namely allegations that leading scientists supplying data to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) interfered with the publication of manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals that went against the ‘accepted’ consensus.

Having been a research scientist myself, I had personal experience of the vagaries (and outright back-stabbing) that is the standard peer-review process. For those who have not had the pleasure, your paper – representing months or years of work – goes off to a journal you believe warrants a piece of research of this calibre. It is then sent off – usually on an anonymous basis – to be reviewed by 2-3 experts in the field, who are supposed to check it thoroughly for errors of fact, point out anything that might be missing, and/or suggests improvements. Assuming you didn’t go for a ridiculously high profile journal, and you jump through the reviewers’ hoops, voila – publication!

Except it often doesn’t work like that. Anonymity is not always assured, since research areas are so narrowly-focused these days that everyone pretty much knows everyone else in the field so can guess who wrote the paper. One or more of your reviewers might hate you, your boss, one of your named co-authors, or your institution. He (or she) may not like your conclusion (whether or not it is correct is irrelevant) – particularly if it contradicts their own pet theory.

Your paper – which could be 100% factually correct with a sound conclusion – can then be vetoed by said reviewer, with no consequences for him (or her), and with little or nothing you can do about it. In the end, all you can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move onto the next journal. Eventually, you’ll see your name in print.

Remember that this is common in science already, where pretty much the only thing on the line is personal reputation. Throw in global politics, deals involving trillians of dollars per year and massive vested interests and you truly have a process ripe for corruption.

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Categories: climategate, science
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