Science Directions

Much of what we do as scientists, researchers and academics depends on some variation of peer review. The fate of journal submissions, grant proposals and even tenure decisions rests on the judgments of our peers.

Some consider peer review as the foundation on which contemporary science is built. Others are less sanguine, emphasizing the many flaws and fallacies of peer review. Even its critics, however, will concede that the alternatives may be worse.

It is important that the scientific community achieve some consensus on the merit of peer review. For one thing, it will help motivate efforts to improve the process or otherwise develop an alternative. If peer review is where we want to place our confidence in allocating journal pages and research money, then we must also be prepared to defend it.

The threat to peer review

Most of us are quick to criticize and complain about peer review. Participating as a reviewer takes time and attention away from our own research. Journal editors and review officers at funding agencies constantly scramble to find reviewers. And the rest of us must endure-often with great dismay-the comments and criticisms of our peers.

Yet, most of us appreciate the importance and value of peer review. Indeed, when the institution of peer review is threatened, we are quick to defend it. It seems that those threats are increasingly common, and so we find ourselves in a chronic defensive posture.

One threat to peer review occurs when efforts are made in Congress to rescind the funding of grants. In the summer of 2003, an amendment was offered in the House of Representatives that would have cut off funding from five grants already funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grants all focused on sexual health and behavior. The amendment was defeated, partly by construing it as an attack on peer review.

Scientists are appalled when scarce federal dollars are spent on research that has not been subjected to peer review, especially when such research has been judged as lacking in scientific merit. Instances abound of congressional earmarks to fund research that most of the scientific community has rejected as unproductive. Peer review is offered as the better arbiter of scientific merit.

The NIH has built one of the greatest peer-review systems in the world. Scientists express outrage when well-scoring grant proposals are denied funding in favor of lower-scoring proposals. Not surprisingly, many psychologists were concerned when the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) asserted on its Web site that "we reserve the right to withhold or grant funding on applications at any ranking based on program priority." At any ranking! This comes across as dismissive of peer review, and scientists don't like it.

An effort is currently under way to establish an "open access" policy relating to research publications. NIH and some members of Congress want to see all publications resulting from NIH support to be freely accessible. There is some merit to the idea, but significant questions are not being addressed. As it currently stands, the cost of peer review and editing is borne by the publisher. Those costs are covered by paid subscriptions. If publications are made available for free, how will the costs of review be covered? We tend not to think about open-access policies as a threat to peer review, but in most variations currently proposed, they are indeed a threat to peer review.

Defending peer review

Despite a collective ambivalence about peer review, it is better than the alternatives. If some aspects of peer review are undesirable, then we should strive to repair them. When peer review is set aside for purposes of political expediency, we must be quick to cry foul.

Critics of peer review have plenty to complain about. Yet, when the institution is attacked or ignored, we come to its defense. We love it and we hate it. In the end-especially when the stakes are high-we place our trust in it. Long live peer review!