Yet another spectacular failure of peer review

Peer review is supposed to be the way that science assures the quality of scientific studies. Peers of the authors of grants or scientific reports critique and ultimately approve the funding of grants or the publication of reports. Unfortunately, peer review is a hopeless system.

Despite being central to science, it was unstudied for centuries. This was a paradox in that experimentation and the gathering of data and evidence is the way that science works. Peer review was—and remains—faith rather than evidence based. Once we began to study peer review in the 1990s we found that it’s slow, expensive, wasteful, largely a lottery, ineffective at weeding out flawed science, poor at detecting errors, prone to bias, easily abused, and anti-innovatory in that the most original science is often rejected. We have found no convincing evidence of its benefit. Yet peer review continues on a huge scale, consuming the time and intellectual capacity of scientists.

It’s unsurprising that peer review should often reject the truly original because it’s a “lower-common-denominator process” whereby those successful in the existing paradigm find the new paradigm incomprehensible. We have many examples of work that subsequently won Nobel prizes being rejected, including Hans Krebs’s description of the citric acid cycle, Solomon Berson’s discovery of radioimmunoassay, and Bruce Glick’s identification of B lymphocytes.

The failure of peer review to recognise the truly original can really be shown only through case studies, and so I’m delighted to have found another example—in Nick Lane’s magnificent book Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life.

The idea that the mitochondria that are in all eukaryotic cells might have originated as bacteria was put forward powerfully by the French scientist Paul Portier in 1918 in a book Les Symbiotes. His work “attracted high praise and harsh criticism in France, though it was largely ignored in the English-speaking world.” This failure of scientists to pay attention to work from other countries and disciplines is another failure of science.

In 1925 an American Ivan Wallin proposed similar ideas, but his experiments could not be replicated. The great biologist and writer E B Wilson said in the 20s: “To many, no doubt, such speculations may appear too fantastic for present mention in polite biological society: nevertheless, it is within the range of possibility that they may someday call for serious consideration.”

That day came in the 1967 when Lynn Margulis published a paper full of “serious consideration” and evidence that mitochondria were once bacteria. Her seminal paper appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology—but only after being rejected by 15 other journals. Knowing the slowness of peer review, I fear that this process may have wasted years. Interestingly, once her paper was published the journal received an “umprecedented” 800 requests for reprints, illustrating for me that the wider world, as opposed to the narrow and orthodox peer reviewers, could recognise the importance of the work.

The failure of peer review continued in that Margulis’s book The Origin of the Eukaryotic Cell described by Lane as “one of the most influential biological texts of the century” was rejected by Academic Press despite having been commissioned. It was eventually published by Yale University Press.

To hell with peer review, I say: publish and let the world decide. It is, I suggest, what ultimately happens anyway: much research approved by peer reviewers has no impact, while papers repeatedly rejected have a big impact—as in this case.


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