Monday, January 16, 2017

Peer Review Imposes Bias

 Peer review within the scientific community is flawed. Having peers in your field or related fields review your data inherently imposes bias. Understandably, everyone in your field would like for your promising findings to be valid because that leads to advancement for the entire scientific community. However, going into a review hoping the results will be a certain way has already clouded your judgement before you even read the first sentence. From then on, you subconsciously—or consciously—look for data that reinforce what you already “know” to be true, and ignore what doesn’t fit into your theory. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as confirmation bias and it stems from the simple fact that we all want to be right. No one goes into their research already thinking that they are wrong; everyone chases evidence for ideas that they think might be correct.

Having peers review your work could impose a certain amount of bias, but to try to avoid this, other measures can be put into place. PubPeer, for example is a post-publication peer review site where scientists from all fields can anonymously critique data and offer suggestions. This is a good start because other scientific communities can be more objective in their reviews. Their careers aren’t necessarily affected by whether your research is valid or not, but they will still offer a thoughtful and careful critique of the data simply because of their love and respect for science (presumably). One problem I see with PubPeer is that all the critiques are happening after the research has been published. This doesn’t quite make sense to me because the whole point of a peer review is to catch mistakes and flawed data before it’s made public. If PubPeer was utilized prior to publication, then many more mistakes and faulty data could be corrected, or at least debated, before they are considered common knowledge. This is especially important for graduate students who are constantly reading papers to learn about the scientific advancements in our chosen fields. If we read papers that “haven’t had all the kinks worked out yet” then our research could be based on unverified information.

I agree that science benefits significantly from having great minds evaluate the work of other great minds, but more importantly our method for evaluation, well, needs a bit of evaluation itself.

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