The Murky Climate of the “Editorial Peer Review” Debate

Peer review was a popular topic in 2010. Not that it hadn’t been discussed in the media before, but it seems the issue popped up more than ever over the past year. Here, I’ll use three examples among many1 from 2010, which have led to calls for strengthening, “tweaking”, or abolishing the editorial peer review system. The dominant discourses reveal a disconnect both at the level at which peer review is being analyzed and regarding the expectations of the process. Editorial peer review is not a “gold standard”, nor a way of producing scientific knowledge; it is difficult to categorically say whether it “works” or not. It is equally problematic to systematically dismiss editorial peer review as only a basic means of quality control that leaves all judgment to an ad hoc post-peer review process (though this approach is certainly effective under certain circumstances). In order to address concerns about peer review within a specific context, the process itself should be viewed as a set of practices, mainly used to demarcate boundaries (of science as a whole and of individual specialties) and to favour consensus building.

Arsenic, climate and clinical trials…

Mono Lake in California, where it was reported that high arsenic levels proved conducive to the evolution of arsenic-using microbes

Following the backlash from the “hype” of NASA’s public relations efforts, there was a major debate over whether the article in question should have published in the first place (or whether it was “worthy” of publication in Science). For others, the problem with this episode, like that of cold fusion 20 years ago, lay in a hasty “passage” to the public sphere. This implicitly means that institutionalized editorial peer review is the solution, not the problem. Other perspectives focused on the self-correcting nature of science, in this case mostly occurring as post-editorial peer review discussions. The blogosphere buzz around this article has indeed been something akin to a sort of extremely “inclusive” form of expanded peer review and is certainly interesting in its own right, especially as one considers the strengths and weaknesses of the “blog” model of peer review. But this “backlash” effect could hardly be considered a model for ensuring scientific accuracy.

  1. See also, for instance: Mark Henderson, British Medical Journal, 340, 2010, which focuses on the “anonymity” of peer review.

Between history of science and science policy: Moving from the “war room” to the “shop floor”

Most would agree that the history of science and science policy are somehow linked: the various incarnations of history of science as a field of study aim to uncover “how science works”, be it through a “traditional” focus on a more or less linear intellectual progression, through the lens of its relationship with a broader social and political sphere, or by looking at its deeper social interactions between scientists. In this sense, I’m convinced that almost any historian of science—especially those operating in the context of having to “justify” the impact of their work—would recognize, on some level, important connections between the knowledge they produce and science policy. One could even argue that the raison d’être of modern science policy lies in the realization that science itself does not operate as an isolated endeavour—it’s too important to be run only by practicing scientists. But can we say something more specific about what ties the history of science and science policy in the making? I hope to put forth a few partial suggestions to help answer this question or, at the very least, provide some food for thought.…