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M Swanepoel
07-19-1998, 06:09 PM
Hi Mel, and everyone else concerned,

Some of you may know Charles McCutchen well - a polymath who wrote a
considerable number of papers on a variety of topics, including articular
cartilage tribology. Several years ago, I met him briefly at a conference, and
he launched into the subject of peer review, which he felt was sidelining some
major researchers in the USA. He gave me a copy of his article which
appeared in MIT's Technology Review, "Peer Review, Treachorous
Servant, Disastrous Master", October 1991 issue, pp 28-40. Charles
believes that the situation is especially bad in biomedical science.

There are clearly two things at stake here:
A) Publication.
B) Access to funds.

As far as publication goes, I think that it is essential to have peer
review - there is an astounding number of people out there who would
dearly love to have their ideas published, no matter how whacky. My
father is a virologist, and in a disease outbreak he received some really
weird e-mails from Joe Public; I believe one suggested that the outbreak
was of Martian origin! On the other hand so many people are
hyperspecialised nowadays, that scientists are in danger of missing some
great ideas if "review" becomes "censorship". I know that there have
been several cases in the USA where it has been obvious to some
would-be authors that their papers were knocked out by identifiable
colleagues, almost certainly because of contending scientific
theories/interpretations.

To many people there does appear to be a vicious circle, in which
funds accrue to those research units which publish a great deal, and
which then are able to purchase extremely expensive equipment and the
services of top scientists, leading to the publication of yet more
papers, and so on. As a PhD student in the UK I remember hearing
heated discussion of this subject. Of course Oxford and Cambridge
were singled out as constituting funding black holes, which
threatened to leave little cash for other researchers. (This was
definitely not a sour grapes attack, but there was an insinuation
that eminent scientists gave each other back handers, to the
exclusion of debutants, and those who had valuable ideas, but
weren't "mainstream". It was also felt that peer review was pretty
much a case of the emperor's new clothes - scientists being
sufficiently specialised for them to be able to identify each others'
research proposals without difficulty. Certain groups conduct
certain research, and there's no big secret as to who does what. The
smaller the country, the worse this effect becomes.)

However "natural funding selection" has to be a very effective means of
concentrating resources in areas where the most rapid progress is
being made. To extend the analogy with natural selection - it is up
to the individual research team to find an evolutionary niche where
it can make the best contribution to science, and then to apply
itself assiduously. For example, I have heard it said that gait analysis
is oversubscribed, and any research team moving into that area will
now be looking at extreme funding competition, and probably a low ratio of
scientific impact to funds invested. Thus such a team should seek a
new niche.

I think there's plenty of significant science to be done, and new areas open up
the whole time. There is probably little need for scientists to feel
that they are goldfish in a feeding frenzy, chasing too few crumbs.
I truly believe that if scientists take a long hard look at their
skills and abilities, and at the world itself, they'll all find their
own ponds to swim in, and their own food supplies. Peer review
antagonism is rather like two big men trying to fit their feet into
the same pair of shoes, with extreme discomfort resulting for both.
If they each tried to find a pair of shoes that fit each of them
properly, the problem of peer review antagonism would largely
subside, as would their swollen feet!

Mark W Swanepoel
School of Mechanical Engineering
University of the Witwatersrand

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