Untie the mavericks

Felipe Fernández-Armesto bristles at the stifling effect of peer review

April 10, 2014

“Peer review”, according to a reputable apologist, “is the worst form of assessment”, except for all the others. George Bernard makes his case in the latest volume of Adventures with Britannia, the always star-studded occasional papers of the British Studies Seminar at the University of Texas at Austin. This is, perhaps, the last milieu in which Churchillian sallies are instantly recognised and applauded by an audience attuned to Britishness. As a former editor of the English Historical Review, Bernard can write feelingly about the travails of finding the right reviewers and evaluating their evaluations. If anyone has good cause to reject the system it is someone like him, who must bear the brunt of the work. Research, he concludes, “is a collective endeavour, in which each published paper adds its mite to the corpus of knowledge and understanding, and some papers turn out to add even more”. So far, so unassailable. But is he right to add, “Peer review plays an invaluable part in that endeavour”?

A historical journal is unrepresentative of the world of peer review. Bernard presided over the adjudication of completed papers, whereas most peer review is really peer preview, focused on prospects of cost-effective returns. History is a cheap discipline, in which little of economic value is normally at risk, whereas most projects belong to the sciences and other disciplines where quantification is part of the culture and cost-effectiveness seems calculable. Still, in any case, it seems premature to dismiss the possible replacements or complements for peer review: we have not tried them all yet. So why adhere to a system that “we all know”, as Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, wrote in a guest editorial for the Medical Journal of Australia, in February 2000, “is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong”?

In the UK, the education system is good at producing brilliant individuals, while the academic establishment is unrivalled at constraining and frustrating them

Peer review encourages a form of academic regression to the mean. Reviewers, typically, are the constructors of the status quo and the formulators of prevailing wisdom: so they have an interest in rejecting challenges. The system rewards only predictable findings; so there is no prospect of getting funding for research that follows the genuine trajectory of discovery – into the unknown. The costs of scientific research, compared with most work in the humanities, makes reviewers properly cautious. When I evaluate research projects in history, for instance, Times Higher Education readers will be unsurprised to hear that I am willing to endorse radical, unprecedented and subversive thinking: it is not so easy for a reviewer of an expensive scientific proposal to confide in a brilliant maverick. The overall effect is to restrain innovation.

Donald Braben, who has a long and honourable record in defence of common sense and open-mindedness against bureaucratic obfuscation and rigidity, makes plain the consequences in his imminent book, Promoting the Planck Club, in praise of “defiant youth, irreverent researchers and liberated universities”. Braben is the sole elector of members of the Planck Club – some 500 20th-century scientists who made major discoveries that would fail funding tests under today’s rules. Albert Einstein, J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Barbara McClintock, Francis Crick, James Watson and Sir Harry Kroto are among Planck’s fellow members. Other mavericks, whom Braben omits, might qualify for membership. Kary Mullis, for instance, who does innovative work in his head while surfing and motoring, thought of polymerase chain reaction in 1983, driving late at night with a girlfriend (who then ditched him, perhaps for his evidently unromantic attachments). Barry Marshall, who helped to expose the bacterial origins of stomach ulcers, found conventional research so frustrating that he experimented on himself by drinking a noxious concoction. In an interview, he said that when he proposed a paper on his findings to a professional conference in Australia, he received a telling rejection: there was room for only the top 10 per cent of submissions, as identified by peer review. Tim Hunt made his first scientific discovery – of the role of ribosomes in RNA – as the result of “utter serendipity”: letting an experiment run on while he lingered too long at lunch. His career as a yeast geneticist in cancer research was stymied for years, partly because of an orthodoxy that made him seem dispensable, on the grounds that yeast does not get cancer.

If we want to maximise innovative research, we have to liberate the mavericks. So we have to be able to outflank the peer review army. Braben advocates a national “Venture Research Initiative” for the UK, where peer review controls more funding, relatively speaking, than in any other country notable for scientific work. I suspect, however, that the preponderance of peer review will continue to restrain British achievements. In this country, the education system is good at producing brilliant individuals, while the academic establishment is unrivalled at constraining and frustrating them. Two features of the US funding system demand to be imitated: the practice of universities (such as my own) giving academic staff uninhibited control over research budgets of our own and enabling us to start seed-projects in defiance of hidebound judgements; and the abundance of private grant-making foundations that can transcend the usual constraints and allocate funds without fear. But would any British government make the necessary changes in the fiscal system and university funding and governance?

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