Is the peer-review system broken?

Politics is impinging on editorial policy

Peer-review is supposed to be the gold standard of research, underpinning credibility and accuracy in academic and scientific findings. There is no doubt that a review process by qualified specialists should improve quality, provided it doesn’t become a gatekeeping exercise for dogmatic orthodoxy. However, several examples over the last 15 months have highlighted that peer-review may not be the guarantee of accuracy and quality that it should be.

The refusal of several journals to publish the results of the first randomised controlled trial of face masks for COVID-19 appears to have been the result of it not giving the politically desired outcome. There has also been similar resistance to publishing an important review paper on the effectiveness of ivermectin in treating COVID-19. On the other hand, a study showing hydroxychloroquine was harmful to COVID-19 patients was published — before having to be retracted after the underlying data was exposed as faulty and possibly fabricated

Studies of vaccine effectiveness have been criticised for numerous failings, including not taking into account background viral incidence, differences in testing protocols between vaccinated and unvaccinated and other relevant factors, not stating the less flattering figures of absolute risk reduction and number needed to vaccinate, and not reporting safety data. If peer-review was working as it should, these gaps and errors would be picked up and addressed prior to publication. As it is, by missing them and by allowing politics to impinge on editorial policy, journals are doing their credibility — not to mention general trust in science — no favours.

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