Richard Smith: More on the uselessness of peer review

Richard SmithI know I’m becoming a bore with all this raving against prepublication peer review, but like all true bores I’m charging on regardless. And I’m fired up by the experience I’ve had in the past few minutes.

Unsurprisingly, I’m a hypocrite as well as a bore, and despite my protestations I do a fair bit of reviewing. I’m never quite sure why, but it’s something to do with the hope of getting an early peek at something stupendous. This has yet to happen.

Anyway, I did recently agree to review for a journal of global repute and was given access to the paper. As is my custom, I downloaded the paper to read on a plane or train, and when I read it I thought that I must have downloaded only the summary. What I had was a sketchy piece with no argument, no data, no evidence, and, as far as I could see, no point.

Assuming that I had only the summary, I contacted the editors—and was told that I had the whole article. I wrote a review that was nearly as long as the paper pointing out its deficiencies politely, making suggestions on how it could be improved, and giving references to two much better papers that covered similar ground. But why, I wondered, had the editors sent it out for review? Perhaps it was because of the prestige of at least one of the authors.

Today I was sent an email telling me that the journal has made a decision and that I can access the other reviews. The paper has been rejected, but I see that the paper has had two other reviews—both saying in effect that what they had been sent was no paper at all.

What a waste of time and effort. The authors should never have submitted the paper, the journals shouldn’t have sent it out for review, and we reviewers should have declined to review it. Failure all round.

Recently a paper that I wrote with several others was reviewed by another journal of global repute. Again there were three reviewers (the Holy Trinity), and I’m not very unkind when I paraphrase their reviews as: Reviewer A: “Please reference my work”; Reviewer B: “Pay more attention to my specialty”; and Reviewer C “The authors should have written the paper in the gnomic language that I use.”

These episodes remind me of my most fatuous peer review story. Years ago something I’d written was quoted in  the American Journal of Public Health, but in my piece I was quoting work done by others. The original authors wrote to me and asked me to let the journal know that they had originated the idea. I was happy to do so and wrote a short letter for publication saying little more than “Thank you for quoting me, but X and Y first produced this idea and here’s a reference.”

The journal wrote back saying: “Thank you for your letter, which will now be peer reviewed. If it passes peer review it will be published in nine months.” Barmy, I thought. This was peer review reduced to a mindless, bureaucratic, time and resource consuming charade—but maybe that’s what it is most of the time.

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.

Competing interest: I do quite a lot of reviewing for many journals. I am never paid, and my wife wants to know why I spend such a lot of time working for nothing. When I review for the BMJ I’m offered a year’s free access to, but I have free access anyway–so I give away the access. Perhaps I should sell it.