The Tyranny of Peer Review (was Re: Censorship)

Thomas Lammers lammers at VAXA.CIS.UWOSH.EDU
Thu Dec 20 08:05:25 CST 2001

At 12:27 PM 12/20/01 +1100, you wrote:

>I'm confused. The other day we heard how only in New Zealand was there
>an unfair bundle of obstacles to John Grehan's  pursuit of
>panbiogeography. Now there seems to have been a world-wide outbreak.
>John, reviewers are entitled to their opinions, wherever they live. You may
>think it's  censorship or a conspiracy to suppress. To me at least it looks
>merely ordinary peer review of what is reasonably seen as a sidebar idea
>to the mainstream.

Now, I haven't paid much attention to the whole panbiogeography
business,  and have no particular opinion either way, but I do have to
weigh in here on the larger issues involved.  I can see these issues from
the perspective of an author, a reviewer, and an editor, as I am sure many
of us can.

Peer review can be a two-edged sword.  On one side, it is absolutely
critical to maintaining the integrity of our science, a necessary
checks-and-balances system.  On the other side, it can be a petty form of
tyranny.  Think about it: TWO people can effectively suppress any idea they
don't like, if an editor mechanically follows their recommendations.  That
doesn't take a conspiracy, it just takes two people who disagree with you.

The very idea of suppressing a "sidebar" idea is anathema to academe.  Just
because >90% of practicing biogeographers have sworn allegience to a
particular worldview, it does not deserve to be protected from competing
concepts, hypotheses, and theories.  Most of the progress that has been
made in science has come from "sidebar" ideas.  Continental drift was once
as kooky as UFOs and the paranormal, yet here we are, adrift on our plates.

The function of peer review is NOT to enforce orthodoxy in any particular
field.  It is to make sure that no mechanical error, dishonesty, or fraud
has taken place and to ensure that the basic tenets of the scientific
method have been followed.  It is to ensure that no one is saying the sky
is green or the grass is blue or that 2 + 2 = 5.  The niceties of whose ox
gets gored are off-limits.

I believe it is critical for the health of our science that all ideas and
conclusions that have any claim to a legitimate basis (i.e., for which
there are some data available) be chucked into the marketplace of ideas and
thrashed out.  Let posterity be the judge of whether Grehan's ideas have
any merit, not two peer reviewers with an ax to grind.  As long as he lays
his cards on the table and plainly labels everything in an honest fashion
(this is hypothesis, this is data, this is speculation, etc.), I've got no
beef.  I find it morally repugnant to even consider declining to publish a
study simply because it operates according to a different paradigm than the
one I embrace.

Thomas G. Lammers, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor and Curator of the Herbarium (OSH)
Department of Biology and Microbiology
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, Wisconsin 54901-8640 USA

e-mail:       lammers at
phone:      920-424-1002
fax:           920-424-1101

Plant systematics; classification, nomenclature, evolution, and
biogeography of the Campanulaceae s. lat.

"Today's mighty oak is yesterday's nut that stood his ground."
                                                 -- Anonymous

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