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Peer review not sacrosanct

January 3, 2006

Peer review, the sacred cow of the scholarly world, is often a hurdle that those of us with less-than-conventional ideas sometimes find difficult to overcome. Thomas Stossel, American Cancer Society Professor at the Harvard Medical School, recently put the process in perspective: "Anonymous peer review by jealous competitors has its merits, but it has a tendency to select for fashionable if relatively unoriginal and inoffensive papers." (Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2005, p. A10.)

Admirers of Mises, of course, know what his peers did to him in the United States in general and at NYU in particular. And then there was Socrates, who was executed by his peer reviewers, and Galileo, who was put under house arrest by his.

Thomas Kuhn (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) observed that one aim of establishment science is to prevent the emergence of new ideas; peer review seems to be a good way to accomplish this. Sometimes peer review seems akin to having two or three movie critics determine whether or not a new movie should be released to the public (or have to undergo "major revisions" before it will be accepted). Some years ago I read a colleague's paper that was in press; when I pointed out an inconsistency between two sections of his paper, he replied that that's what he had to put in to pacify two reviewers.

The trouble with reviewers (of all types, peer or otherwise) is that they tend to evaluate new material based on how they, the reviewers, would have written the article, book, screenplay, etc., rather than by accepting the author's premise, then judging the execution. The bottom line of peer review is that one must respect the peer who is doing the reviewing; that's not always possible in today's intellectual climate. Unfortunately, Stossel ended his op-ed piece by praising the FDA for its more stringent research requirements, that is, more stringent than those of academic journals. Maybe. But one can only wonder what scholarship would be like in a truly free market, absent government-financed schools and government-financed journals.

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