Is scientific peer review censorship?

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in February 2010

700 words / 3 min.
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Does scientific peer review constitute censorship? There is a sense in which peer reviewers – especially in the sciences – do act in a kind of censorial capacity.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Suzan Mazur — a critic of “Darwinism” (I think she means modern biology) — recently raised a critique of the scientific peer-review process, claiming that it serves primarily as a means of censoring non-conformist ideas. The concept has potential merit — although she buries it in arguments like this:

Suzan Mazur: You’ve also got scientists in evolutionary biology who pound on th e creationists because they don’t have fresh discoveries themselves. What they’re doing is making an industry out of bashing the creationists instead of improving the science. That’s what’s happening on the science blogs, where you get these virtual death squads opposing any science that veers from Darwin orthodoxy. Characters purporting to be atheist scientists who are actually violent Darwin religious cultists censoring the free flow of ideas. Making statements like, “I’m always happy to see a fellow hang himself.”

That’s the peer review that’s now popular. It’s degenerated into a bloody massacre.

via Suzan Mazur: Peer Review as Censorship (for a more in-depth critique, see
Suzan Mazur – Perpetually Clueless).

Leaving aside her obvious agenda, does peer review constitute censorship? Technically, censorship involves government proscription, although can be seen to extend to suppression by anyone with sufficient authority. In the United States, censorship is typically considered anathema to a free society, but that is not true everywhere (Europe prohibits hate speech, for example, and even in the United States certain kinds of censorship are acceptable, such as bans on child pornography).

Unlike prohibitions with the legal backing of government authority, the peer reviewers act in a more ad-hoc fashion. They simply do not operate with the kind of unified power characteristic of censors (unless you believe that biology is controlled by some kind of cabal, I suppose).

That said, there is a sense in which peer reviewers — especially in the sciences — do act in a kind of censorial capacity. They “referee” articles, looking for unwarranted claims, irrelevant data, unsubstantiated findings, or other “bad” science.

In theory, this review is not supposed to be on the acceptability or not of a certain theoretical perspective or result, but rather strictly on the basis of scientific methodology: objectivity, logic, rationality, proper controls, accurate math and statistics, and so on.

There are no peers for new discoveries. To judge something a peer would have to know about it. If a peer already knew about it, it would not be a new discovery. – Larry Spring

In practice, peer review certainly can act as a conservative break on innovative or controversial ideas, requiring additional support if an author seeks to revolutionize an area of science. (Personal perspectives of reviewers can also play a role in reviews, of course.) The effect of this may well be that proponents of such controversial ideas as “intelligent design” (to pick Mazur’s area of interest) are expected to follow rigorous scientific standards, standards which may indeed make it hard to get past reviewers (since certain logical fallacies,  evidentiary problems, and so on often occur in such arguments).

So is peer review “censorship”? Yes, in a decentralized and conservative manner, it is. But without it, peer reviewed journals would be less trustworthy, not more — we would not be able to rest our evaluation of trustworthiness on anything outside the article itself.

This might, though, allow for more controversial and revolutionary theories to emerge (innovation, anyone?) but it would increase the amount of work we, as readers, would have to do to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. (This might be a good thing.) Essentially, scientific journals would be indistinguishable from the Web as a whole.

What do you think? Is peer review censorship? Is it bad censorship? Are reforms needed and, if so, what kinds?