What Kind of Peer-Review Would Jesus Want?

By Jennifer Barone | April 11, 2008 10:02 am

For all those creationists out there wondering how to approach peer review in their brand new “journal,” Answers Research Journal, take heart: the latest edition has some friendly advice.

Despite the centrality of peer review to the development of a scholarly community, very little is known about the biblical basis and Christian conduct of peer review. We find that peer review is rooted in several Christian virtues, such as reflecting Christ, being honest, seeking wisdom, humbly submitting, showing Christian love, correcting error, and being accountable. Given these principles, we recommend that creationists use a double-blind peer review system, wherein the identities of the author and peer reviewers are confidential.

I think most scientists would agree that honesty, accountability, and the correction of errors are important aspects of the scientific review process. The “biblical basis” may seem a bit of a stretch, though, since last time we checked, peer review got going in the 17th century at the Royal Society of London. The ARJ paper does cite a lot of biblical passages, but I couldn’t find any describing how to get your new protein structure results thoroughly vetted and published. It’s also more than a bit disturbing that the authors don’t seem to view scientists whose “virtues” are rooted in any other tradition as qualified to take part in the process. Then again, what else would you expect from editors who have stated in their policy that they won’t publish anything that contradicts the biblical flood story or suggests that the earth is more than a few thousand years old?

As it turns out, the authors of the peer-review tract do realize that even insulating themselves from the real world may not be enough to keep publishing humming along. For instance, they point out that the tiny number of people who actually consider themselves creationists could pose a challenge. The authors wonder (and so do I)

if all the creationists with formal training in one field coauthored a paper together, what qualified peer is left to review it?

Now that would be a fine pickle, wouldn’t it?

But although the whole concept for the journal is a scientific joke (dictating in advance that your results must not contradict the Bible), I actually think the ARJ peer review recommendations got one thing right: double-blind review. That’s where the names of both the author(s) and reviewer(s) are concealed.

Most journals operate on a single-blind system, where reviewers know who the authors are, but not vice versa. Unfortunately, many studies have found that this system perpetuates a bias against female authors. When one journal introduced a double-blind system, they found a significant increase in the number of accepted papers written by women.

Single-blind reviewing also may benefit well-known, established authors with a long publication record, making it more difficult for promising work by new, relatively unknown researchers to make it into publication. Read more about why journals should double-blind here.

As for the ARJ, I applaud their double-blind review recommendation. It’s a pity there won’t be any actual science to evaluate.

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