Scientific Peer Review Is Broken Because the Peers Are All the Same

There’s been a lot of conversation about the value of scientific peer review lately. Less than a week ago, the New York Times reported that: “Two major [coronavirus] study retractions in one month have left researchers wondering if the peer review process is broken.” Much more concerningly to me, “[a]n unscientific and racist article” (quote from here) was published in Philosophical Psychology in December 2019 and the editors refused to let a group of scholars publish a critical commentary in a timely fashion. On a related note, the transphobic Gliske paper about which I had posted previously was retracted in April after months of controversy about how it could have possibly passed peer review.

Why does peer review not prevent the fruits of scientific racism, transphobia, and so many other damaging -isms and phobias from getting published?

My short answer is: it’s in the name.

In case you were looking for a longer answer: Peer review is conducted by peers, i.e., humans who have been socialized in much the same way as the author of a scientific paper. Scientific authors and their peers have grown up and were educated in a society that is structured by the same hierarchies along the intersecting lines of race/ethnicity, sex/gender/sexuality, dis/ability, and class, to name only a few. Peer review means everyone has virtually the same point of view. In that sense, peer review is designed to reproduce the same views over and over again.

And let me be very clear: if you’re not actively fighting this dominant view, you’re complicit and responsible for the damage done. There is no neutral middle ground. (If you disagree with this statement, read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and if you still disagree after reading it, read it again.1)

In addition to the problem of peer reviews’ circularity, there’s another important point. Most conversations about failures of scientific peer review have in common the assumption that peer review will weed out “bad science” and increase our chance of unveiling capital-T Truth. This strikes me as a positivistic and decidedly exclusionary point of view.

It’s no secret that historians of science don’t believe in an objective Truth. This doesn’t mean that we believe in complete arbitrariness, or that research in the humanities doesn’t have to be rigorous (an insult I’ve heard often enough from people who refuse to respect non-scientific ways of making sense of the world).

The refusal of subscribing to the idea of Truth is rooted in the conviction that who and where we are shapes how we see the world. Even if two historians of science looked at the very same data (we call them sources), they would make sense of them in different ways. (Not even to mention their selection of different data according to various standpoints.)

This contingency doesn’t make research in history of science “bad humanities” in the same way that scientists seem to believe that incongruency or non-replicability point to “bad science.” To the contrary, the explicit validation of varying perspectives makes history of science (and, I would argue, the humanities more generally) a decidedly diverse field of inquiry. Perspectives that have historically been minoritized are highly valued (at least in theorywe, too, have a long way to go). Peer reviews in history of science deliberately aim at clarifying the author’s standpoint, broadening their perspective, and helping them overcome blind spots in their sources and argument.

According to many scientists, the only “good science” seems to be one that unveils the Truth. And the only good scientist is the one whose “good science” pursues this Truth. And what the Truth is gets defined by the dominant culture (or shall I say “peers”?).

I wish it were needless to say, but obviously it isn’t: this environment is very hostile towards socially and intellectually minoritized groups. And this is why we seem to be stuck with a homogenous group of scientists whose peer review is a mechanism that reinforces the dominant view over and over again.

Of course some scientists speak up, but mostly to be silenced rather quickly or for the conversation to be rerouted into technicalities.

If scientists wanted to make science better, then I believe the first step would be to define “better.” In my view, “better” science would be science that contributes to bringing our current world closer to the one in which I want to live, i.e., a healthy planet and justice for all who live on it.

Once we’ve agreed on the definition of “better,” we can work towards getting there.

You think that diversity is the solution?

I’m afraid it’s not nearly enough. The country in which I live is very diverse, but it’s not even close to the world in which I want to live, and definitely not a country that produces a lot of “better science.” What good is it for diverse perspectives to exist but not to be valued?

To all the scientists in the world: FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS, YOUR FIELD OF INQUIRY HAS BEEN AIDING, COMMITTING, AND JUSTIFYING SYSTEMATIC OPPRESSION OF AND DEADLY VIOLENCE AGAINST MINORITIZED MEMBERS OF VARIOUS SOCIETIES. IT’S HIGH TIME FOR ACTIVE ANTI-RACISM, ANTI-TRANSPHOBIA, AND ANTI-OTHER-ISMS-AND-PHOBIAS WITHIN SCIENCE. CITE, HIRE, PROMOTE, AND COLLABORATE WITH SCIENTISTS OF COLOR, LGBTQ+ SCIENTISTS, YOUNG SCIENTISTS, SCIENTISTS WITHOUT PROMINENT OR ANY INSTITUTIONAL AFFILIATION, AND NON-SCIENTISTS. INTEGRATE THEM INTO YOUR NETWORKS. TAKE THEIR VIEWS SERIOUSLY. THIS WILL BROADEN THE HORIZON(S) OF YOUR PEER GROUP AND MAKE YOUR PEER REVIEWS LESS REDUNDANT.

And, again: If you don’t do it, you’re complicit and responsible for the damage done. There is no neutral middle ground. (If you still disagree with this statement, read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility a third time.2 If you agree with this statement, consider these and these reading suggestions.)

  1. The book itself is not flawless, but I find the concept of White fragility very powerful and important. []
  2. See again this review for a critique of the book. []

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