2011-09-08

Peer review and [you know what]

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by Neil Godfrey

Part of my job as a coordinator of the management of research data at an Australian university is to be familiar with the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. The section in this document on Peer Review (chapter 6) is interesting when considered against the controversial remarks that sometimes erupt over mythicist publications. The code lays out the responsibilities of peer reviewers and researchers in Australian universities and other publicly funded research institutions. The mere fact that a code sets out responsibilities is itself testimony to the potential for the process to go awry. Its success relies upon the professionalism of enough of those involved to keep everyone in line and avoid lapses. The code is a valuable reminder of its potential limitations.

Here are some excerpts. Bold type has been added by me.

Peer review has been important in the detection of fabrication and fraud in research. However, on its own, it cannot ensure research integrity.

Then in the section on responsibilities of peer reviewers:

It is important that participants in peer review:

  • are fair and timely in their review . . . .
  • declare all conflicts of interest, do not permit personal prejudice to influence the peer review process, and do not introduce considerations that are not relevant to the review criteria. . . . .
  • ensure that they are informed about, and comply with, the criteria to be applied
  • do not agree to participate in peer review outside their area of expertise
  • give proper consideration to research that challenges or changes accepted ways of thinking.

Consideration of any of these quickly raises alertness to how the effectiveness and integrity of the peer review process is bound up in the broader cultural climate in which reviewers operate.

What criteria would be set out in advance of any review of a discussion of mythicism?

How many reviewers are ultimately financially supported by institutions that explicitly or implicitly will not tolerate certain results or ideas? That’s not to say that financial interest is the only form of conflict of interest. Other types include personal, professional and institutional advantages (as discussed in chapter 8). Will someone’s career path be clouded if they came out in support of a certain viewpoint?

Will all potential reviewers be willing to declare their views on a subject as surely as a potential juror or judge is expected to declare any bias before selection?

It is not all one way, either. It is researchers who are in receipt of public funding who have a responsibility to participate in a peer-review process. And the normal process would be for a supervisor to assist a newcomer “in developing the necessary skills for peer review . . .”

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Neil Godfrey

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