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Conduct and Misconduct in Science

by David Goodstein, PhD.

" Peer review is a good way to identify valid science. It was wonderfully well suited to an earlier era, when progress in science was limited only by the number of good ideas available. Peer review is not at all well suited, however, to adjudicate an intense competi-tion for science resources such as research funds or pages in prestigious journals. The reason is obvious enough. The referee, who is always among the few genuine experts in the field, has an obvious conflict of interest. It would take impossibly high ethical stan-dards for referees to fail to use their privileged anonymity to their own advantage, but as time goes on more and more referees have their ethical standards eroded by receiving unfair reviews when they are authors. Thus the whole system of peer review is in peril.

Editors of scientific journals and program officers at the funding agencies have the most to gain from peer review, and they steadfastly refuse to believe that anything might be wrong with the system. Their jobs are made easier because they never have to take responsibility for their decisions. They are also never called to account for their choice of referees, who in any case always have the proper credentials.

Since the referees perform a professional service, almost always without pay, the prima-ry responsibility of the editor or program officer is to protect the referee. Thus the referees are never called to account for what they write in their reviews. As a result, referees are able, with relative impunity, to delay or deny funding or publication of their rivals. When misconduct of this kind occurs, it is the referee who is guilty; but it is the editors and program officers who are responsible for perpetuating a corrupt system that makes such conduct almost inevitable.

This is the kind of misconduct that is, I fear, rampant in all fields of science, not only in biomedical science. Recently, as part of a talk to a large audience of mostly young resear-chers at an extremely prestigious university, I outlined this analysis of the crisis of peer review. The moderator, a famous senior scientist, was incredulous. He asked the audien-ce how many disagreed with my heresy. No one responded. Then he asked how many agreed. Every hand in the audience went up. Many of us in my generation wish to believe that nothing important has changed in the way we conduct the business of doing science. We are wrong. Business as usual is no longer a real option for how we conduct the enterprise of science. "

Dr. Goodstein, David, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, (1996),

Conduct and Misconduct in Science, in The Flight from Science and Reason, P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, and M. W. Lewis, New York, New York Academy of Sciences, 775: 31-38.


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