“If Peer Review Were a Drug, It Would Never Be Marketed” — Altman

Lawrence Altman of the New York Times, has written a must-read explanation of why so much scientific fraud is slipping through previously sacrosanct medical journals; why, as he puts it, “If peer review were a drug, it would never be marketed.”

It works something like this:

Public dollars go to scientists, usually through universities, which demand that the scientists publish their work. To get published, the scientists offer articles to scientific journals without pay. The journal editors then ask a panel of outside experts not to prove or disprove the findings, but to see if there are any obvious statistical holes. The reviewers give thumbs up, and the article is published and then publicized as gold-standard evidence. Along the way, no one finds out how extensive the peer review really was, what friendships or jealousies exist between reviewer and author or which drug company paid which author or which reviewer.

The journals generally are owned by conglomerates whose revenue comes from advertisers whose products are being investigated. The authors are owned by the faculties that promote them based on their publications, and the editors, in turn, are owned by the authors without whose free work they would have nothing to publish.

If this were politics and not academe, at least three commissions and one grand jury would be empanelled.

1 COMMENT

  1. You and Dr. Altman are way off the mark by blaming scientific journals for the (supposed) wave of fraud in science. You both absolutely fail to point the finger at those who actually commit scientific fraud – the scientist(s) who deliberately produce such work. While journals should be faulted for not requiring disclosure of conflicts of interest (which is slowly changing for the better) it is the scientists who perpetrate the fraud who need to be punished. In any other profession fraud is a crime punishable by prison sentences and burdensome fines. This stiff punishment is deemed justified as the criminal has misrepresented him/herself to the unwary in order to steal money or property. What difference is there in scientific fraud, which basically boils down to defrauding the American public for ones own benefit?

    Visiting the Office of Research Integrity one finds that those found to have committed scientific misconduct (data fabrication, for example) receive nothing more than a ‘slap on the wrist’, where the perpetrator (often voluntarily) is excluded from participating in federally funded research for 3-5 years. Compare that with, say, the prison terms/fines a stock manipulator or a corporate insider receives for their crime. And yes scientific fraud is a real crime. It is stealing. It also results in a tremendous loss of time, effort, and money while other scientists pursue lines of research instigated by the fraudulent work.

    So if you want to stop ‘scientific misconduct’ then stiff measures need to be applied to the perpetrators. Punishment is the best deterrent.

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