Peer-Reviewed Scientific Journals Don't Really Do Their Job

The rush for scientific cures and treatments for Covid-19 has opened the floodgates of direct communication between scientists and the public. Instead of waiting for their work to go through the slow process of peer review at scientific journals, scientists are now often going straight to print themselves, posting write-ups of their work to public servers as soon as they’re complete. This disregard for the traditional gatekeepers has led to grave concerns among both scientists and commentators: Might not shoddy science—and dangerous scientific errors—make its way into the media, and spread before an author’s fellow experts can correct it? As two journalism professors suggested in an op-ed last month for The New York Times, it’s possible the recent spread of so-called preprints has only “sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.”

There’s another way to think about this development, however. Instead of showing (once again) that formal peer review is vital for good science, the last few months could just as well suggest the opposite. To me, at least—someone who’s served as an editor at seven different journals, and editor in chief at two—the recent spate of decisions to bypass traditional peer review gives the lie to a pair of myths that researchers have encouraged the public to believe for years: First, that peer-reviewed journals publish only trustworthy science; and second, that trustworthy science is published only in peer-reviewed journals.

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.Scientists allowed these myths to spread because it was convenient for us. Peer-reviewed journals came into existence largely to keep government regulators off our backs. Scientists believe that we are the best judges of the validity of each other's work. That's very likely true, but it's a huge leap from that to "peer-reviewed journals publish only good science." The most selective journals still allow flawed studies—even really terribly flawed ones—to be published all the time. Earlier this month, for instance, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put out a paper claiming that mandated face coverings are “the determinant in shaping the trends of the pandemic.” PNAS is a very prestigious journal, and their website claims that they are an “authoritative source” that works “to publish only the highest quality scientific research.” However, this paper was quickly and thoroughly criticized on social media; by last Thursday, 45 researchers had signed a letter formally calling for its retraction.

Now the jig is up. Scientists are writing papers that they want to share as quickly as possible, without waiting the months or sometimes years it takes to go through journal peer review. So they're ditching the pretense that journals are a sure-fire quality control filter, and sharing their papers as self-published PDFs. This might be just the shakeup that peer review needs.

The idea that journals have a special way to tell what’s good science and what’s bad has always been an illusion. In fact, the peer review process at journals leaves much to be desired. When a paper goes through, only those reviewers invited by the editor can weigh in on its quality, and their comments almost never get shared with readers. Journal peer review typically means that authors get a small dose of vetting—a few drops of criticism—on the way to publication. In contrast, when a paper is posted as a preprint, the authors’ peers still review it, but their vetting isn’t forced through the tip of a pipette. Instead, a firehose of criticism gets turned on. Because a preprint is public, any scientist can review the paper, and their comments may be posted to it using annotation software such as hypothes.is, or shared on social media for all readers to consider. That tends to make for better science, in the end.