Saturday, 19 April 2014

So what is the point of peer review then? Bias and the European Journal of Public Health


Richard Grant reports that the European Journal of Public Health (EJPH) has become the latest academic publication refusing to publish research that is wholly or partly funded by the tobacco industry. As Richard points out, the publication is, in essence, admitting that the peer review process doesn't work.

By banning research funded by one particular industry the Journal is demonstrating that its review process it is not just the research that is assessed but the author or the funder of the research. And that the Journal is not confident that its reviewers will be able to spot research from tobacco-funded sources in a blind review. The journal doesn't operate a blind review process that would give greater assurance of research quality and reduce risk of reviewer bias.

This indicates that either the tobacco-funded research is mostly sound or else that the carefully selected reviewers for the Journal are not competent (I guess it could indicate both of these things too).  If it is the latter then perhaps the editor and managing editors need to improve the editorial board (it is listed here although the specialisms and institutions of its members aren't clear).

It seems that the Journal, rather than operating a proper peer review system aimed as ensuring quality is instead through an 'open' process effectively institutionalising confirmation bias. As an independent outsider, I find this quite disturbing - the editorial board is effectively positioning itself to refuse any research (however funded) that challenges the board's ideology. I do not need to read every article published in EJPH (or indeed any of them) to know that what is published is selected, partial and probably biased.

In one respect this doesn't matter a jot. The Journal is a private institution published by another private institution. However, because its pronouncements on public health are given weight in the wider world, the fact that we cannot be confident of its objectivity makes it dangerous. And the decision to exclude research on the basis of its funder alone (regardless of the validity or quality of that research) illustrates why I am right to be concerned.


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