Leader: Open the lab doors to the light

To restore faith after Climategate, researchers must be clearer about the limits of peer review and transparent in their workings

July 22, 2010

A self-serving closed shop that suppresses dissent, stifles innovation and - with alarming regularity - fails to guarantee essential integrity? As guardian of the global scientific canon, the peer-review system has always had its detractors.

But the "Climategate" affair gave sceptics powerful ammunition and many new converts. As Adam Corner says in our cover story, the controversy has shone "an uncomfortable light into the inner chambers of science's castle, and outside observers have not been impressed by what has been revealed".

The internal emails illegally obtained from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit gave the public an unedifying behind-the-scenes view of science. The emails seem to show researchers itching to "go to town" against those who take issue with their work and planning to blacklist journals that publish articles challenging their views.

In his inquiry into the affair, Sir Muir Russell declared the CRU's science sound: he uncovered no evidence of any "subversion" of the peer-review process and no "unreasonable attempts to influence the editorial policy of journals". He did, however, lament the unit's general lack of accountability, highlighting a "consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness" in dealing with requests for information from the public.

Such defensiveness and obstruction damages public trust in researchers and is bad for science. But Climategate may yet have a positive outcome for the whole of the academy.

First, it should once and for all shatter the enduring myth of science as following a "neat and tidy linear path towards greater knowledge" and show it in all its messy, ungainly but wonderful glory.

Second, the furore should also blow away peer review's cloak of infallibility.

For his inquiry, Sir Muir was advised on peer review by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, who wrote, after the publication of the Russell report, that "peer review is not the absolute or final arbiter of scientific quality ... it does not guarantee truth".

Peer reviewers are not machines - they are all-too fallible human beings, often burdened with onerous workloads and undertaking reviews with little reward other than the satisfaction of helping to further knowledge. A survey by the charity Sense about Science last year found that a third of respondents said that they take on up to 10 reviews a year and spend an average of six hours on each. With 1.3 million scholarly articles published each year and myriad grant applications demanding peer review, too, the system is overstretched.

Academics cannot hide behind peer review or use it to deflect public challenge to their work. After Climategate, scientists must be more accountable. Inevitably they will be obliged, not least by Freedom of Information laws, to make more of their data available for independent audit.

"Simply accepting a scientist's assurance that data are accurate and reliable is no longer enough," Dr Horton has written. Researchers' raw data increasingly will be sought and scrutinised by "citizen scientists" - bloggers and other amateurs who are at their best educated and enthusiastic, searching and insightful.

If such a climate of openness is embraced, the public understanding of science - and science itself - can only improve.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com

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