New York Times and the Politics of Academic Prejudice

Dr. Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times today takes on the problem of poor academic peer review and fraud in scientific journals, and how their failure to carefully vet papers has resulted in public mistrust. However, the lack of oversight, audits, and failed analysis of scientific papers cited — a good first step — to anyone involved actually describes the symptoms of a more insidious disease. The greatest problem faced by researchers today is the ease by which anonymous reviewers of unstated credentials can blackball competitive ideas and promote others they prefer with impunity. Thus, instead of a battle of ideas openly discussed, papers are promoted merely for reinforcing entrenched ideas already espoused by the reviewer or for spinning trendy ideas in which the reviewer may have a stake.

I have heard academics and researchers candidly discuss paper rejections based not on good science but on bad blood and old rivalries. Professor John Doyle of Caltech, a respected researcher who has won prizes for his papers, often quotes the ludicrous academic paper rejections he has received, primarily because he has (self-admittedly) not spent enough time stroking the reviewers at conferences prior to actually sending in a paper so as to “prepare” them and get “buy in to the idea”. And after poorly reasoned (if not completely untrue) rejections, the coup de grace is always that the paper is “poorly written”, no matter how well-published and credentialed. It is a scandal. Is it no surprise then that many researchers are now spending more time writing for trade press while the quality of papers in journals diminishes?

Recently at Stanford I was gratified to hear Dr. Shri Kulkarni of Caltech brazenly discuss his dislike for “paying” journals to publish his work when magazines like Nature gladly accept his articles and pay him for them. Perhaps as a Berkeley alumna who has written both academic papers and published extensively in the trade press, I am inclined towards the intellectual honesty of both Dr. Kulkarni and Dr. Doyle for putting the stranglehold of personal and professional bias in scientific review on the table — after all, both of them received their Ph.D’s from Berkeley, and both of them refuse to remain silent on this outmoded, repressive and ultimately anti-innovative process.

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