Peer review rejects the dissenters

January 30, 1998

In the recent correspondence on peer review the arguments are all about club membership. "Change the rules, get in some new members (more like us) and all will be better" seems to be the prevailing view. This obsession with who does peer review distracts attention from how they do it. In this respect peer review practice exhibits an arrogance that disdains justifying or explaining its judgements - we are here to judge scientific excellence, we cannot possibly define it, but we shall recognise it when we see it, so you must trust us because we are experts.

In other professional contexts such claims are no longer acceptable. Where hard choices must be made and made fairly - for example, in job appointments, procurement or performance appraisal -those who decide must do so on the basis of well-defined criteria and procedures, known to those whose cases are being decided. And the people who do this work must be trained to handle the responsibility. Untrained peer reviewers, ticking a few boxes, adding a paragraph of unstructured comment and assigning a mark from the Greek alphabet, barely measure up in comparison.

Whatever the basis for selecting peer reviewers, there will always be complaints from those excluded. But if reviewers were more evidently governed by agreed professional standards, then there would be a firmer basis for keeping them accountable.

William Solesbury Research management consultant, London SW6

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