Refereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy?

“[P]prior to the Second World War the refereeing process, even where it existed, had very little effect on the publication of novel ideas, at least in the field of physics. But in the last several decades, many outstanding scientists have complained that their best ideas? the very ideas that brought them fame?were rejected by the refereed journals. Thus, prior to the Second World War, the refereeing process worked primarily to eliminate crackpot papers. Today, the refereeing process works primarily to enforce orthodoxy.” Frank J. TiplerRefereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy? (ISCID)

Unfortunately, the Tipler article is in PDF format. I’ll post a few excerpts below.
Tippler says that the universities’ shift to “publish or perish” means that

the production of scholarly articles has increased by more than a factor of a thousand over the past fifty years. Since earlier there was no financial reward for writing a scholarly article, people wrote the papers as a labor of love. They had ideas that they wished to communicate with their peers, and they wrote the papers to communicate those ideas. Now papers were mainly written to further a career.

Hmm. While it was wonderful and great that a few brilliant scientists of previous generations wrote their most influential papers in their spare time, not everyone has the kind of spare time that leads to productive academic work.

While Tipler complains about careerism, he seems to conflate “scientific advancement” with “winning a Nobel Prize,” as in the following passage:

The number of physicists, for example, has increased by a factor of a thousand since the year 1900, when ten percent of all physicists in the world either won the Nobel Prize or were nominated for it. If you submitted a paper to a refereed journal in 1900, you would have a far greater chance of having a referee who was a Nobel Prize winner (or at least a nominee) than now.

Tippler sounds fairly elitist and very embittered when he writes, “Today, Einstein’s papers would be sent to some total nonentity at Podunk U, who, being completely incapable of understanding important new ideas, would reject the papers for publication.”

Elsewhere, Tipler refers to “the ratio of giants to pygmies”, “powerful but mediocre scientists [who] suppress any idea that would diminish their prestige”, and notes that “If the referees for a grant proposal
submitted to this division of that bureau happen not to like your work, your grant proposal will
not be funded—period.”

Tipler says he himself experienced discrimination because his scientific theories include references to the Judeo-Christian God; he thus places himself in the path of the dangerous Darwin vs. Intelligent Design debate (if you can call it that — the idea that evolution is directed at a distance by divine intervention is violently rejected by all-or-nothing scientists and all-or-nothing creationists alike).

I think Tipler’s problem is that he thinks knowledge should simply float from one scientist’s brain to another’s — without the bother of having to put it into words for real human beings to read. The title of this article suggests a balanced inquiry, but the argument is emotionally-driven, not balanced. Regardless of what you think about Darwin or Intelligent Design, if you were a scientist, how would the following make you feel?

Most referees are “stupid” (to use Nobelist Blobel’s adjective), at least relative to the authors whose breakthrough work we would most like to see published in the leading journals. But I will grant that these “stupid” referees serve a useful purpose if the scientific community remains as large as it is today. Most papers written by most members of the scientific community are worthless. (Most papers are never cited by other scientists.) These trash papers are written because of the “publish or perish” rule imposed by universities. A referee, even a stupid one, can at least keep out the worst of the trash papers from the journals. But we don’t want to misidentify works of genius as trash. Which is exactly what the typical referee in fact does.

Tipler says that up-and-coming geniuses ought to be able to bypass the peer-review process if their articles are submitted with cover letters from established geniuses. We all know what would happen in that case. While the present peer review process may not be perfectly suited to separate the wheat from the chaff, at least that work is delegated to hundreds of thousands of researchers. In Tipler’s world, the few established geniuses would be flooded with papers begging for cover letters, which would keep them out of their laboratory and turn them into gate-keepers. Since all this paper reviewing, if done correctly, would take up a huge amount of their time, they would have less time in the laboratory. If the geniuses did what most human beings in their sutation would do — protect their time by doing only precursory reads, or asking someone else to filter the initial flood of submissions, then Tipler’s ideal system would once again be inefficient and wasteful, and scientific progress would be controlled not by anonymous reviewers but by a small number of well-known and easily assailable public figures. You’d have to be a politician to handle that kind of power without stirring up even greater resentment within your discipline.

Tipler does point to an electronic peer-reviewed database that seems to operate as a surrogate for the perfect system Tipler suggests.

Whoops, my 1-year-old just woke up, so my blogging is over for now.

Link found via Ed Tech Dev.