Saturday, February 25, 2012

A World Without Referees

Larry Wasserman article, Carnegie Mellon University

Our current peer review is an authoritarian system resembling a priesthood or a guild. It made sense in the 1600’s when it was invented. Over 300 years later we are still using the same system [..] If we used the same printing methods as we did in 1665 it would be considered laughable. And yet few question our ancient refereeing process. [..] I argue that our current peer review process is bad and should be eliminated.

The refereeing process is very noisy, time consuming and arbitrary. We should be disseminating our research as widely as possible. Instead, we let two or three referees stand in between our work and the rest of our field. I think that most people are so used to our system, that they reflexively defend it when it is criticized. The purpose of doing research is to create new knowledge. This knowledge is useless unless it is disseminated. Refereeing is an impediment to dissemination.

Every experienced researcher that I know has many stories about having papers rejected because of unfair referee reports. Some of this can be written off as sour grapes, but not all of it. In the last 24 years I have been an author, referee, associate editor and editor. I have seen many cases where one referee rejected a paper and another equally qualified referee accepted it. I am quite sure that if I had sent the paper to two other referees, anything could have happened. Referee reports are strongly affected by the personality, mood and disposition of the referee. Is it fair that you work hard on something for two years only to have it casually dismissed by a couple of people who might happen to be in a bad mood or who feel they have to be critical for the sake of being critical?

Some will argue that refereeing provides quality control. This is an illusion. Plenty of bad papers get published and plenty of good papers get rejected. Many think that the stamp of approval by having a paper accepted by the refereeing process is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the field. This attitude treats a field as if it is a priesthood with a set of infallible, wise elders deciding what is good and what is bad. It is also like a guild, which protects itself by making it harder for outsiders to compete with insiders.

We should think about our field like a marketplace of ideas. Everyone should be free to put their ideas out there. There is no need for referees. Good ideas will get recognized, used and cited. Bad ideas will be ignored. This process will be imperfect. But is it really better to have two or three people decide the fate of your work?

Young statisticians (and some of us not so young ones) put our papers on the preprint server arXiv ( This is the best and easiest way to disseminate research. If you don’t check arXiv for new papers every day, then you are really missing out [..]

When I criticize the peer review process I find that people are quick to agree with me. But when I suggest getting rid of it, I usually find that people rush to defend it. Is it because the system is good or is it because we are so used to it that we just assume it has to be this way? In three years we will reach the 350th birthday of the peer review system. Let’s hope we can come up with better ideas before then.

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