Call to scrap peer review in hunt for brilliant ideas

Giving future Einsteins free rein will save money and boost science, academic argues. Zoe Corbyn reports

December 18, 2008

Peer review of academic journal papers should be abolished and teaching-focused lecturers should be encouraged to give up research under proposals seeking to ensure that academe continues to produce "paradigm-shifting" research.

The plans are put forward by Donald Gillies, a professor of the philosophy of science and mathematics at University College London, in his new book, How Should Research be Organised?

Published this week to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE), the book argues that the current system, under which more than £1.5 billion a year is distributed to universities, has damaged research quality.

Professor Gillies argues that the RAE, a massive peer-review exercise, encourages conservative research. He says it stifles developments that lead to major advances and paradigm shifts because academics know this type of work will be rejected by peers.

Professor Gillies also argues that the system being set up to replace the RAE, the research excellence framework (REF), should be abandoned.

The REF will judge research quality on the basis of numerical indicators such as the number of times an academic's research papers are cited by others. But he argues that this system, under which journal papers still have to make their way through the peer-review processes before they can be published and be cited by others, represents no improvement on the RAE.

Professor Gillies proposes a new system under which teaching would be given greater recognition by university promotion boards.

This, he argues, would weed out academics who are not research-inclined and have failed to produce any particularly noteworthy work, but who have carried out research in order to climb the academic ladder.

Those driven by a love of research would choose it as their main activity and would build up reputations by having their first papers peer reviewed. But after that, scientists would be unencumbered by this vetting system.

Details of how research funds would be distributed under the new system are thin, but they would be awarded to institutions more equally, said Professor Gillies.

He admitted that his proposals would represent a radical departure, and that the notion that the "secret to producing good research is to reward teaching" at first seems paradoxical.

But he argued that it allowed for "self-selection" that is not in the current system.

He said his approach would also save money because it would cut out the cost of peer review, which can be measured in academics' time.

His approach, he claimed, passed with "flying colours" a "historical test", which considered how major research advances from the past would have fared under the modern system.

Advances cited in Gillies' book include Einstein's discovery of special relativity, published in 1905 without first being peer reviewed, and a booklet by Gottlob Frege on modern mathematical logic that was published in 1879 and panned by critics. Both works brought major advances to their fields.

"Had they been in force at an earlier historical period, both the RAE and the metrics-based (REF) would have prevented these important research advances," said Professor Gillies.

The book uses a diamond-sorting analogy to explain the dangers of the RAE. While the intention is to separate clear diamonds (valuable) from flawed ones (worthless), pink diamonds (the most valuable of all) may be thrown out in error.

The pink jewels, he says, are the pieces of research that do not seem particularly strong when they are produced, but are destined to yield "brilliant results in the future".

Writing in today's Times Higher Education, David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says that the RAE has helped institutions "build a strong, sustainable and dynamic research capacity across all disciplines" while allowing them to "pursue wholly new approaches and lines of inquiry".

See related opinion story.

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