A University of Bristol Ph.D. student has exposed uncomfortable truths about the scientific journal peer-review process.
His just-published study on a proposed new model for peer-reviewing describes a phenomenon known as herding which "subjects the scientific community to an inherent risk of converging on an incorrect answer and raises the possibility that, under certain conditions, science may not be self-correcting".
In other words, scientists are too scared to be seen to be challenging the dominant paradigm for fear they will be ostracized or perhaps even lose their job.
Despite being given freedom under the model to make their own judgments, herding occurred in three different conditions which caused study leader Mike Peacey to suggest that the "subjective views of scientists should be encouraged in peer-review".
One report pointed out that bankers had been roundly criticized for herding: if your banker gives bad advice, that could cost you financially but if a scientist gets it wrong, people's lives may be at risk.
The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.•
Scientists falter as much as bankers in pursuit of answers, theconversation.com, 5 December 2013.
Modelling the effects of subjective and objective decision making in scientific peer review, nature.com, 4 December 2013.
How science goes wrong, economist.com, 19 October 2013.