Spier, R. (2002). Peer review and innovation. Science and Engineering Ethics, 8(1), 99-108.
This little read paper from 2002 is worth quoting at length. It underlines the inability of peer review to identify important studies, and its role in guarding the status quo in the field. Based on such thinking, some people have come to the conclusion that one should simply do away with peer review and return to the normal scientific mode of publishing, where is the editor review (i.e. the editor reads it over and if it seems fine, that’s it).
It is doubtful, however, that the difficulty of publishing a paper claiming some innovative idea, concept or model would be sufficient to prevent eventual publication unless the paper was of such a poor quality and contained obvious inconsistencies that virtually all referees would move for rejection. Persistence and perseverance and sending the often-rejected paper to a sufficiency of journals normally results in publication: even though such a process may take several years. Therefore, it would be difficult to claim that the idiosyncrasies of the academic publication process would inhibit innovative thinking or writing: such activities would take place in any case; it is their publication which is delayed. One consequence would be that the innovative article is most likely to appear in a second or third ranked journal. As such publications are less widely read (especially by newspaper reporters and commentators, who review the first rank journals as a matter of course) the dissemination of the novel idea is hindered and often completely buried. In this sense the peer review process has prevented the widespread broadcasting of the new idea with the result that its manifestation and implications may be lost for many years. However, with modern retrieval techniques of literature searching (using the internet, search facilities and ‘hot links’) and the increasing number of meta-analyses which are conducted, it is not unlikely that, providing the essence of the innovative idea is implicit in the title and abstract, the article would be ‘fished out’ from the sea of dross surrounding it, resulting in an elevation to its rightful place in the ‘sun’.
It could be held that the pressure on academics to publish papers that are cited (another form of peer review) is often a determining influence on what is published. Papers which contain a method that becomes adopted by the field (an innovative departure) are a prime target for an ambitious academic. But papers that have innovative theoretical ideas are also well cited as such ideas are subjected to various tests and experimentation. There is, however, little correlation between what reviewers think about the quality of a paper (by a prediction of its citability) and the actual citations obtained, 1 which means that the targeting of a paper for its future citability is a dubious means of achieving such acclaim. So, as the performance of an academic is measured by successful and cited publications, this criterion drives the research process towards a ‘me-tooism’ approach, which is safe and likely to be cited by others working to a similar driving dogma in a similar or related subject area. This results in the small step change type of innovation which may, by happenstance, lead to a completely new paradigm, but which generally serves merely to expand the literature of the field.
Peer review of publications does not welcome, support or promote innovation but neither does it prevent it. Such novelty as does occur relies on the foresight and determination of the author. People in general are resistant to change and the introduction of that which is deemed foreign. As much innovation is strange at first sight, resistance to its promulgation may be considered natural. Innovative work survives because of its intrinsic merit: it succeeds as people become familiar with its advantages and prospects. It also emerges when the necessity to achieve a new goal has been clearly enunciated with accompanying funding.