Stifling innnovation or filtering for excellence?

An article in the Financial Times, Science stifled? Why peer review is under pressure (11 June 2008), reports various recent criticisms of the peer-review system, including a letter to the newspaper by 25 distinguished scientists calling for a “global fund to support inspired scientists, free of peer review”; news of a Royal Society pilot scheme for a “blue skies” research fund, to avoid the “constraints of conventional peer review by using a generalist panel to consider proposals from any field, on the basis of their novelty and potential to open up new areas of science and technology”; and in the announcement of this year’s Grand Challenges programme of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Tachi Yamada, the foundation’s head of global health, is cited as saying “We’ve got to get around peer review – it’s anathema to innovation. Innovation has no peers, by definition.”

The ”">Financial Times article goes on to identify various innovations in the peer-review process itself, being tried or in normal use by various publications. Scientists themselves, however, choose to publish in the highest quality journals rather than on the basis of their peer-review systems. Linda Miller, US Executive Editor of Nature, is quoted in the article:

Linda Miller, executive editor of Nature, agrees that scientists continue to seek publication in prestigious journals to enhance their own standing. They also concentrate on reading the best-regarded ones, precisely because their time is precious. “You want to be directed, to use the best journals as a filtering device,” she says. “I have been an editor for more than 20 years and I have handled a lot of papers. Every single one has been improved by peer review.”

The article concludes that “Peer review may not be immortal, and may be experimenting with different forms, but it looks set to guard the gates of research for some time to come.”


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    Bob O'H said:

    I don’t quite understand this. The first paragraph talks about peer review in grant applications, and the second talks about it in the review of manuscripts. Aren’t these two rather different things?

    On peer review of grant applications, surely one way to encourage creativity is to focus on the applicant, rather than the proposed work, and then leave them to get on with it. This is the money I’m on now (thanks to the Academy of Finland), and the ERC grants should serve a similar function.

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    Maxine said:

    I agree with you that the two systems of peer-review (grant applications and submitted manuscripts) are broadly different, in that one process is attempting to define a project likely to be fruitful, whereas the other is assessing a reported result and conclusion, as you point out, Bob. However, there are similarities, in that the journal peer-review process has often been accused of leading to originality and ideas being suppressed (rejected), and the “status quo” being maintained. And the FT article is citing various people and organisations that think the standard grant peer-review system is also stifling innovative thinking in favour of tried-and-true paths which don’t allow any “breaking out of the box”.

    In the post here I discussed a couple of aspects of the FT article, but the full piece at the link provides a more seamless account.

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    Bob O'H said:

    I wonder if the approach to creative research is the wrong way round. For projects that aren’t hugely expensive, wouldn’t it make more sense to make the funding decisions locally? A central funding agency is going to have more difficulty assessing the quality of candidates and their applications. Of course, for expensive projects this won’t work.

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    Dov Henis said:

    Peer Review And Innovation In Science

    A. “The new face of peer review”, in “Funding Opportunities and Advice” forum, at

    refers to “changes to the peer review process”.

    B. However, “peer review process” is the least disturbing aspect of “peer review” in science

    Samples of factual observations of other negative aspects of peer review in science:

    “A U.S. Supreme Court decision and an analysis of the peer review system substantiate complaints about this fundamental aspect of scientific research. Far from filtering out junk science, peer review may be blocking the flow of innovation, and corrupting public support of science.”

    – “Peer review stifles innovation, perpetuates the status quo, and rewards the prominent. Peer review tends to block work that is either innovative or contrary to the reviewers’ perspective.”

    C. “Peer Review” is, factually, a tool of a “Subversive Activities Control Board”

    The most revolting corrupt aspect of peer review in science is its exploitation by the Science Establishment to tightly clamp its political and financial omni-everything rule and control, including stifling of any shred of scientific innovation.

    D. The corruption is not inherent in the tool, but in the nature of the Science Establishment

    “Implications Of Science And Technology Evolution”—?cq=1&p=419

    The peer review process is but a tool of the Establishment. The corruption is not inherent in the tool, but in the nature of the Science Establishment.

    As long as Science and Technologhy are considered and handled, conceptually and administratively, as one realm and one faculty this corruption cannot and will not be overcome. This conception and attitude is THE CORRUPTION OF SCIENCE BY THE 21st CENTURY TECHNOLOGY CULTURE.

    Dov Henis

    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)—?cq=1

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