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  • Peer Review

    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

    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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