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Nobel Prize winner calls peer review “very distorted,” “completely corrupt,” and “simply a regression to the mean”

with 45 comments

brenner

Sydney Brenner

Sydney Brenner has been talking about what’s wrong with the scientific enterprise since long before he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002.

And in a new interview, Brenner doesn’t hold back, saying that publishers hire “a lot of failed scientists, editors who are just like the people at Homeland Security, little power grabbers in their own sphere.”

In a King’s Review Q&A titled “How Academia and Publishing Are Destroying Scientific Innovation,” Brenner says:

And of course all the academics say we’ve got to have peer review. But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted and as I’ve said, it’s simply a regression to the mean.

I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists.

Check out the whole interview here.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

March 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

45 Responses

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  1. Yes, academia and publishing are destroying science, but taxpayer funded “government” grants puts the frosting on the cake that makes them lethal. If each university had to putup their own money they might take
    science and publishing more seriously

    ed goodwin

    March 3, 2014 at 8:13 am

  2. Interesting remarks. But in some carreers it is the corruption of professors in Bavaria stealing my ideas, project and results to promote others in their Diploma, PhD and Professor carreers, i.e. not the reviewers.

    Eibl

    March 3, 2014 at 8:14 am

  3. Not sure if there is a nomenclature problem here? Peer-review isn’t just peer review. It’s peer review of articles before they are published in scientific journals.

    This means the role of the Editor is unavoidable in the current scheme of things.. it is actually possible for Editors to unilaterally approve reject what the reviewers have rejected/approved.

    Then of course, with great powers come great responsibility, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nothing unexpected.

    omnologos

    March 3, 2014 at 8:25 am

    • APS editors are more like sorters; they don’t have the power to overrule the 2 referees’ verdicts. But, authors can appeal to the divisional editors.

      It’s a bit different in chemistry- in part because there are more chemists. The editors do wield a fair amount of power in the ACS system, from what I’ve seen. Esp. concerning the journal’s scope and interest level.

      Allison (@DrStelling)

      March 3, 2014 at 10:19 am

  4. But most editors of most journals are also practising scientists — aren’t they? Nature, Science, etc are notable exceptions.

    Richard Van Noorden

    March 3, 2014 at 8:54 am

    • But it is exactly at these exceptions where the editors hold the greatest power. However, as I’ve stated before, I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to replace these editors at high-impact journals by practising scientists. Active scientists would try to push their own agenda, non-active scientists are at least a bit more impartial.

      BTW: It’s the same group of people complaining about “failed scientists” who are also responsible for shaping the system to force a large share of scientists out of academia to begin with.

      Bernd

      March 6, 2014 at 3:37 am

  5. This is an important matter, and I agree the current peer review system is closed and punishing and petty.

    That’s why Social Media and the internet can be an interesting alternative to the current system by invoking a new, and more democratic, “Peer Review by Crowd.”

    I started a musing, here in 2011:

    http://bolesblogs.com/2011/04/15/can-social-networking-replace-academic-peer-review/

    David Boles

    March 3, 2014 at 8:58 am

  6. Elephant shark genome provides unique insights into gnathostome evolution.
    Venkatesh B, Lee AP, Ravi V, Maurya AK, Lian MM, Swann JB, Ohta Y, Flajnik MF, Sutoh Y, Kasahara M, Hoon S, Gangu V, Roy SW, Irimia M, Korzh V, Kondrychyn I, Lim ZW, Tay BH, Tohari S, Kong KW, Ho S, Lorente-Galdos B, Quilez J, Marques-Bonet T, Raney BJ, Ingham PW, Tay A, Hillier LW, Minx P, Boehm T, Wilson RK, Brenner S, Warren WC.
    Nature. 2014 Jan 9;505(7482):174-9. doi: 10.1038/nature12826.
    What about the peer review of this paper? Is it corrupt? Just questioning…

    KK

    March 3, 2014 at 9:17 am

    • Is this better elaborated in Pubpeer?

      CR

      March 3, 2014 at 10:44 am

    • KK – for those of us not experts in this field would you please enlighten us as to what you believe is wrong with this paper?

      Kenrod

      March 3, 2014 at 11:04 am

      • Probably, what is wrong with the paper is that it was published by a competitor!

        Jerry Lofti

        March 3, 2014 at 11:12 am

      • I think the issue here is that one Sydney Brenner is a co-author on that paper and that it comes from his lab in Singapore.

        So, KK is being sarcastic in that Brenner apparently considers peer review corrupt, but does author a paper that is published in a journal where it is subjected to peer review.

        Marco

        March 3, 2014 at 12:46 pm

        • thaks Marco. Yes, that is my point. I don’t have anything against the paper.

          KK

          March 3, 2014 at 5:23 pm

  7. Concur completely. It is so bad that misleading/false information in peer reviewed articles has been entered into court – and then rejected by a Federal Court Judge when he realized that the information being advanced was wholly false. . See the journal Perspectives on Terrorism for an explanation: http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/256

    Tom Quiggin

    March 3, 2014 at 10:52 am

  8. There are indeed problems with any peer review process due either to monetary conflicts, personal philosophy differences, and lack of knowledge on a specific topic by the Editor that selects his reviewers. I think that what Dr. Brenner is saying in his interview is that many of the reviewers agreeing to spend the time on the review are not the best qualified. It could be the best qualified do not have the time. Thus, the research that makes publication approval is that which the less qualified reviewer is able to comprehend. Perhaps the reviewers, with their review, should be reviewed? (Of course, there would be problems with that!)
    Dan Jenkins DDS, CDE-AADEJ
    Immediate Past-President American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists

    Dan Jenkins DDS

    March 3, 2014 at 11:58 am

    • So, I wonder how Elsevier Ltd. verified the authorship, as defined by the ICMJE, of teams such as this one, the ATLAS Collaboration, listed at the end of my post. Verifying authorship seems to fall within the editorial functions nowadays of Elsevier journal editors, so I am curious, what tools do they have to verify the veracity of such claims of authorship, validdity of data, and other key elements of the publishing process.

      For example, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0375947413003187#
      This paper has exactly 2900 authors (I counted the number of commas). Too perfect to be true?

      Several of the countries in that collaboration have pay-out systems to scientists made based on the impact factor score of the journal in which a paper is published. Judging from my calculations, one paper coud potentially score, among this “collaboration”, millions in direct funding from universities.

      I almost forgot to add, Brenner is absolutely right when it comes to journals in my field, although it pretty much depends on the efforts of individual editors. My latest experience is an editor-in-chief who acts as the processing secretary: acknowledge the paper, question the authorship, send the peer reports without a single comment of his/her own. Why even have an editor in chief? Just get a robot to do that job…

      JATdS

      March 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    • It is also true that too much weight is placed on celebrity scientists such as Nobel Prize winners and rising stars. Of course, politics and incompetence play NO ROLE whatsoever in awarding a Nobel Prize!
      Science and discovering new things are messy and uncertain endeavors. Often, the best plans and the “smartest” people fail, whereas the most ridiculous ideas at times succeed. Just live with this very basic fact of life. There is just a lot of randomness.

      Jerry Lofti

      March 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm

  9. Wonder what could have happened if Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were compelled to submit their ideas to journals! Why are scientists not entitled to protection of their achievements?

    aceil

    March 3, 2014 at 2:42 pm

  10. I think the interview reflects in a succinct way much of what has been said before: young scientists are not getting chances, money and time to try new ideas of their own, and we are overly dependent on the glamour journals to tell us what is good and consequently who should have a career in science. Now committees have tried to impose things to remedy these problems from the top (lots of missives stating Impact factor should not be a factor when hiring, we should do more to prevent Phd students dropping out etc etc) but it has not had much of an effect.

    So to take Brenner’s comments to heart and maybe try the methodist approach rather than the Catholic committee based one. A possible way of improving things is for PIs who care to put aside a small percentage of a lab’s research funds and some time (no one is going to miss it in the grand scheme of things) to support the PhD student/Postdoc(s) who wants to explore a crazy idea and say any ideas that they come up with are their own and that they should enjoy it and its okay to fail. I think it will pay off in the long run.

    Erp

    March 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm

  11. Thank you Dr. Brenner, we need more Nobel Prize winners to change the status quo!

    aceil

    March 3, 2014 at 2:47 pm

  12. Isn’t that a bit strong, “completely corrupt”?

    Fact is there is always going to be some sort of “peer review”, by this or another name. Academics apply for jobs, they apply for grants, they apply for tenure and promotion. Somebody is going to have to make these decisions. They will have to be based on some sort of evaluation system. Research output will have to be one of the major criteria. It needs to be evaluated somehow. If we do away with peer review (and let anybody publish anything or what?), these decision-makers will just rely on gut feeling and other arbitrary factors even more than they already do.

    I always appreciate suggestions about how to improve the peer review system and academic evaluation in general but I see little use for these kind of sweeping generalizations.

    uarktransparency

    March 3, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    • Completely agree. Confidentially, I find that Nobel Prize folks start making little sense soon after they get their Nobel Prize.

      Boris Penlope-Gris

      March 4, 2014 at 1:31 pm

  13. I hesitate to criticize a Nobel prize winner, but I am pretty tired of this type of hyperbole and painting of all editors, journals and publishers as nefarious parties engaged in a plot to hinder science and researchers. Are there some who are “bad?” Certainly. However, in my 16 years experience in STM publishing the overwhelmingly large majority of the editors and reviewers I’ve interacted with are hard working, decent, honest people who do a thankless job because they care about their fields of research. Painting them as stovepipe hat wearing villains tying poor junior researchers to the railroad tracks of academia while twirling their handlebar mustaches is unfair, inaccurate and helps no one.

    Adam Etkin (@adametkin)

    March 3, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    • I hate generalizations too! All Nobel Prize winners are too judgmental.

      Boris Penlope-Gris

      March 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm

  14. I’m getting in a bit late here.

    I don’t think there is a fundamental problem with science publication and funding practices. It would be wrong to expect these institutions to be less corrupt than business, law, politics, and the rest of society. If older scientists think things have gotten worse, it is probably just their rosy memories of the past rather than reality.

    Does the current high competition in science mean that conditions have declined? Or does it just mean that more people worldwide have the opportunity to pursue their interests? It often seems that in the 50’s to the 70’s all scientists in a field were personally acquainted with each other. But that implies a very small and very exclusive group.

    How many people here would even be in science if you had to get your degree from Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard in order to be considered a serious scientist?

    I suspect the problem is exactly the opposite. There are far more people working in science and therefore the competition is far higher. Funding will always be smaller than the demand, as as long as we live in our capitalist systems there will always be a fundamental difference between winners and loosers. I see no way for science to be profoundly better than the other aspects of our society.

    Dan Zabetakis

    March 3, 2014 at 10:10 pm

  15. Speaking for the situation in Germany, one way in which science has become the caricature that Dr. Brenner paints is as is the the way that the significance of funding has changed. In an ideal world of science, (1) funding should be given to those who have ideas with a high potential of payoff for a given field, (2) should then lead to the actual research, which (3) in turn should lead to publications that advance the field (i.e., others can build on it). While (1) may already be a fiction, for reasons described by Dr. Brenner, (2) and particularly (3) may actually become more or less irrelevant for German universities, which try to subsidize shrinking state budgets through overheads from grants. Hence, they court those researchers who are able to rake in millions of Euros in grant support, but don’t really care much what comes out at the other end (i.e., publication of substantial research that has an impact on science). The upshot is that getting funding becomes less of a means to the end of doing good science and more of an instrument for universities to survive (while luscious basic funding goes Max-Planck, Fraunhofer, and Helmholtz) and for scientists to cater to this need of their institutions, regardless of whether the funding money leads to good science. Or any science to speak of at all.

    Oliver C. Schultheiss

    March 4, 2014 at 6:55 am

    • This is of course exactly modeled on the US system. The research strength of US universities is actually ranked in part by the amount of “research expenditures” that they can muster. In other words, what counts is the money spent rather than the outcome. Everything just seems to be upside down.

      uarktransparency

      March 4, 2014 at 11:38 am

      • Exactly. They’re measuring the monetary input, not the scientific output; and feeding that into the “rank” score of a university- a ranks which in turn is used to get more grant money.

        It’d be interesting to look at which universities and research departments get the most science done with the *least* amount of money. May depend on how you measure “research output”, of course.

        Allison (@DrStelling)

        March 4, 2014 at 12:22 pm

        • At the Univerity of Michigan’s psychology department, where I’ve been on the faculty for seven years, the standard used to be a different one (at least until 2007). Yes, raking in funds was important, but even more important was output and quality of output.

          My suggestion for ranking universities’ scientific prowess would be a ratio of published papers over funds acquired. If a university or department produces few papers for lots of funds, then it has little to brag about and instead may need to explain what happened with all the money. If a university or department produces lots papers for fewer or the same funds, it’s clearly the better institution or unit. One could also extend this ratio to total number of citations for published papers as a measure of impact over research funds. But that would take even longer to assess.

          Oliver C. Schultheiss

          March 4, 2014 at 1:50 pm

          • Exactly! Bang for the buck is the only meaningful metric. For scientists…

            K. Hansen

            March 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm

        • Actually, people have done that for countries. I think the UK comes out of top for doing the most with the least. The US does not do to well…

          Jerry Lofti

          March 5, 2014 at 5:11 am

      • But isn’t your view just idealism?

        I didn’t pick the system, but as our societies are today, money is everything. Money, money money. No research gets done without money. No scientists are hired without money. If you are in a lab typing one a keyboard, it is because you, or someone close to you, got a grant funded and is paying your salary.

        For all the critics of the current system, I wonder how you would disperse research funds? As far as I know, no one has suggested a magical means to identify ‘good science’ that could supplant the system of grant application and review.

        Dan Zabetakis

        March 4, 2014 at 12:30 pm

        • Mine? Yes, it is idealistic. (I watched too much Star Trek as a girl, I thought graduate school was like Starfeet Academy. This illusion was shredded in college.)

          Esp. since “science output” varies depending what what kind of “science” you’re doing- you cannot standardize across multiple fields.

          Allison (@DrStelling)

          March 4, 2014 at 1:49 pm

          • “Mine? Yes, it is idealistic.”

            Actually that was meant for uarktranny. The indenting system here isn’t very helpful.

            But your post was very much the same.

            What’s the point of being idealistic? If not for the current system of science funding we would probably end up with something analogous to the DoD contracting system where all research funds are given to a small set of giant corporations which use the money to reward their executives. The DoE is already doing essentially that with the National Labs.

            Dan Zabetakis

            March 4, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    • “funding should be given to those who have ideas with a high potential of payoff for a given field,”
      I disagree. I think scientific research is essentially an implementation of a foraging algorithm. Give equal funding to all scientists. Yes, some are smart, some not so smart. But even the not so smart ones can run into gold at times, because most of the variance is not explained by anything we do, but by random factors and accidents.

      Boris Penlope-Gris

      March 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm

  16. Academic researchers turn to publishers to validate, register, archive and disseminate their research; to find other people’s research and build on those results. Publishers provide these services in the form of academic research journals. But these services don’t need to be provided by publishers – the academic community could decide to find others ways to get these jobs done. So if publishers are going to continue to be useful we need to listen to what is being said.

    At BioMed Central we are conscious of the need to make peer review both effective and as painless as possible both for authors and peer reviewers. And others have made similar points to Sydney Brenner (http://www.biomedcentral.com/biome/caustic-volleys-and-the-sting-of-peer-review-whats-the-solution/). Many of our journals (e.g. the medical titles on the BMC series and GigaScience) operate open peer review and publish the reviewer reports (and names) with the article. It makes the process transparent, makes the reviewers more accountable and gives credit. According to a careful survey we undertook, it also increases the quality of the reviews we receive (http://f1000.com/posters/browse/summary/1094564). Biology Direct (also open peer review) allows authors to select suitable reviewers from the journal’s editorial board, making peer review truly collaborative. BMC Biology allows authors to opt out of re-review, eliminating the frustration of endless iterations (http://jbiol.com/content/8/1/1).
    An important contribution to the efficiency of peer review, and to promoting the prompt publication of research results, in this age of megajournals and increased volume of publications, is portability of peer review. We operate on this principle within the BioMed Central journal portfolio, and are in partnership with a number of publishers and other parties, to reduce the burden on reviewers and accelerate publication.

    We will continue to grapple with ways of taking the pain out of peer review…

    Elizabeth Moylan, Biology Editor, BioMed Central

    Elizabeth Moylan

    March 4, 2014 at 9:59 am

    • “BMC … therefore levies an article-processing charge of £1325/$2155/€1590 for each article accepted for publication. We routinely waive charges for authors from low-income countries.”
      Three queries:
      a) If an author is from a developed country, say a G8 or a G20 country, and they are unable to pay the APC, then can the fee be waivered?
      b) What is the exact link between BMC and Springer Science + Business Medium? Specifically, please elaborate on the issues of ethics, particularly authorship, clearly identifying the differences (it would be assumed that the unsaid parts would be identical).
      c) Please indicate the link with COPE, indicating exactly which journals, if any, are COPE members. Several individual BMC journals do not indicate such information clearly, or at all.

      JATdS

      March 4, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      • In response to your queries:

        a) If authors cannot pay the APC, individual waiver requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis and may be granted in cases of lack of funds. The Editorial team is blind to the authors’ ability (or not) to pay the APC. http://www.biomedcentral.com/about/apcfaq/waivers
        b) BioMed Central was acquired by Springer Science + Business Media in 2008. They are our parent company.
        c) BioMed Central is a member of COPE (and OASPA). All journals are members and journal membership of COPE is clear on the ‘authors’ tab for each individual journal homepage.

        Elizabeth Moylan, Biology Editor, BioMed Central.

        Elizabeth Moylan

        March 10, 2014 at 6:38 pm

        • The response is gretaly appreciated.

          JATdS

          March 11, 2014 at 4:35 am

  17. Surely the best idea is a hybrid of both systems suggested? At the start of a research career every new appointee get an appropriate sum for the specialism, then depending on the quality of their output they are assessed as to how much they get as extension grants. The current system in the US and most European countries does not fund the best research scientist but the best grant application writers.

    Bwana Mrefu

    March 4, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    • I think it would be best to tell the young students BEFORE they try starting a scientific career how corrupt the system is. In Germany there usually will be elite stipends not always for the most brilliant but for the kids of the influencial fathers. Only rarely, others can make a career, e.g. supporting one of those “professional sons”.

      Eibl

      March 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

  18. Could not agree more with the good Dr. Brenner. The current system has devolved to the point where not only is peer review distorted, corrupt, and mean, but it isn’t even doing the job it was intended to do; being the gatekeeper for the quality and integrity of published scientific literature. One only has to look at the volume of problem papers that are being discussed at sites like PubPeer to see that reviewers and editors are totally ineffective at quality control and from the looks of things have been asleep at the wheel for some time. I really wish that as a group we would listen to our elders, take Syd’s comments to heart, and press for change.

    Peer007

    March 5, 2014 at 9:30 am

  19. Creationists manipulated opportunistically Brenner’s criticisms last Tuesday in:

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/03/nobel_laureate_082791.html.

    I’ve commented it today in my blog:

    http://ucablog.com/2014/03/07/criacionistas-e-brenner/

    Mauricio Tuffani

    March 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm

  20. Last week our submitted manuscript to Journal of Clinical Investigation (IF around 15) was rejected by the editor although three excellent and positive feedbacks from the reviewers! I can see what Brenner is talking about!

    Ahmed K

    March 8, 2014 at 11:29 pm

  21. This Nobel laureate’s thoughts are very interesting and go the core of understanding peer review as relations that can contribute to the potential for corruption (or not) and rational decision-making (or not). Unfortunately, secrecy (for editorial judgements and decisions) and anonymity (for referees) can foster corruption that leads to purportedly predatory journals and hijacked journals (http://www.researchinformation.info/news/news_story.php?news_id=1660). Non-anonymity and open review, on the other hand, are relational conditions that lead to higher potential for rational decision-making (http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/31415/1/anonymity.god.like.science_gaudet.pdf). My doctoral research was on the purported resistance of scientists to new scientific ideas at peer review (preprints available at http://peerreview.academy).

    Joanne Gaudet

    August 14, 2014 at 1:10 pm


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