Does anybody benefit from peer review?
Looking at a piece recently about peer review and you get the impression that this is the most worthless exercise imaginable, full of selfish reviewers damning papers for no good reason other than to preserve their own place in the world, failing to fix the multiple problems in manuscripts, and generally just taking up space and time. Let’s blow the whole thing up!
GG gets the feeling that these articles (and they seem to show up about once a week somewhere; Retraction Watch tends to cite them in their weekly roundup) are things some editors at some websites and publications sit about and try to solicit. So it seems like people are encouraged to write these by being told: “Have you had problems with peer review? Tell us your horror stories! Blow the lid off this sleazy operation! Get the revenge you’ve been yearning for against all those ungrateful bastards who made you add useless prose and cite irrelevant papers! We’ll share it with the world!”
GG would like to suggest a different question, and one far more appropriate and to the point. “Have you ever learned of a major failing within one of your manuscripts and been able to correct it because of peer review?” If the answer is truly and honestly no, you can feel free to blare your trumpet about how worthless peer review is. But if the answer is yes, would you have been happier making that mistake in print (or in publicly available electrons)? And yes, GG has gotten feedback in review that, in one paper, resulted in some errors in equations being fixed, and in another in a section being added that really did need to be there for the points being advocated to make sense (that from a review recommending rejection, by the ways). GG thinks he helped two authors avoid publishing papers with actual errors by reviewing material carefully (but you’d really need to ask those authors out of GG’s earshot). Peer review is misunderstood, not only by the public, which mistakes it for some kind of seal of approval, but by lots of scientists, who seem to view it as an opportunity to squash others’ opinions. What it should be is an opportunity to help other scientists present their observations and insights most clearly and effectively so that they can be the basis for new work.
In that piece that inspired this rant, one of the authors basically said that nobody else wrote useful reviews. Although it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, there was a sense that this was kind of true. GG has had the chance to see a lot of reviews over the years and this is either total BS or there are fields where all the practitioners need a good spanking. GG has seen inspired, careful, thorough reviews that arguably were worth publication themselves (these gems are perhaps the best argument for some kind of public version of peer review). Are they rare? Sure. But they show how positive peer review can be.