Monday, 7 July 2014

An Editor’s real opinion of peer review


Richard Smith has retired from the British Medical Journal, after 25 years. I met him in 1984 when he was reporting on a conference I was attending, and after having listened to most of a symposium he offered to leave the room, to write up a journalistic summary, and to return to present the results, thus getting us to appreciate what journalists were looking for, and how they worked. It was a generous offer, though some felt there was no point asking a general journalist to deal with even mildly technical matters. He returned with a good piece, though several conference participants still griped about journalists. The general reaction was “Better a paper never read than a readable summary which didn’t quite get the subtleties of our deliberations”.

Now Richard has written his swansong, equivalent to HMG Ambassador at the end of his posting writing back to the Foreign Office to tell them exactly what he thinks of the locals. Of some interest to me are his caustic words on peer review:

Peer review is still in the dark age with most journals,11 12 and the BMJ has not progressed far. After centuries of being unexamined, the sacred process of peer review has been shown through research to be slow, expensive, ineffective, a lottery, biased, incapable of detecting fraud, and prone to abuse.11 12 Evidence for its upside is sparse. Through our collective failure of imagination it is still, however, the least worst system, and the best strategy seems to be to try to improve rather than replace it. My vision has been that a clumsy black box should become an open scientific discourse conducted in full view and real time on the web. This vision is not widely shared, and even with the BMJ we've got only as far as letting authors know the name of reviewers.

Richard’s plea will sit well with many commentators on this blog and elsewhere.

I find he is a fan of CP Cavafy, whose poem Ithaka gives him the title to his farewell: “Hope your road is a long one, Full of adventure, full of discovery”. Cavafy, the master poet of Alexandria has a talent for the long view. His magisterial and valedictory poem Apoleipein o Theos Antonion  The God Abandons Antony was read at Jackie Kennedy’s funeral. For personal longevity however, I best recall The Afternoon Sun which Lawrence Durrell mentioned in his Alexandrian Quartet. In fact, I think I remember the poem better than the quartet.

BMJ Editor farewell here:

Cavafy canon here:


  1. after we get research journals peer reviewed, then we can get social media peer reviewed :)

  2. Some weeks ago the BBC asked to interview me on some psychological topic on which I had some experience and some knowledge of the literature. I was held up on the studio floor for an hour (these things happen) but the most galling thing was to have to sit through a last minute and long interview with....the BBC person who monitored social media, and who proceeded to describe what the social media were making of the topic. Why should one opinion be any better than another opinion, or indeed another many thousand opinions?

  3. the loudest opinion wins! (especially if lethargy can be induced among other opinion holders:)