Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In praise of peer review

There's an interesting piece in the latest Genome Technology (of all things) on the flaws of the peer review system. Peer review is the process whereby the proposals or papers of one scientists are privately examined by other scientists for technical quality and importance. One common theme in the GT article is the problem of volume: there are too many papers to review and edit, too many grant proposals for too little money, and not enough scientists who can take time to do a quality review. Fortunately, this is not the case with creationism.

Those who know me know that I'm pretty fanatical about peer review. I'm a tough editor and reviewer, and I make no apologies for that. I've even co-authored a paper on peer review. I don't want to rehash that entire article, but for those who don't want to read through the whole thing, here are a few thoughts.

I think the benefit of peer review is obvious: we get better papers. Peer review should give me the confidence that reading a published article will be worth my time. It should also give the public some measure of confidence that the work is a little better than just an opinion piece (like this one). On the other hand, it's important to remember that peer review is no guarantee that an article is correct or flawless. Done properly, peer review should improve decent papers and prevent the worst papers from being published.

The drawbacks of peer review are largely interpersonal. Or to put it less delicately, ego is the biggest enemy of peer review. It's not easy accepting criticism graciously, especially for creationists. When we're beset on all sides by condescending evolutionists telling us that we don't know what we're talking about, it can be difficult to hear criticism from other creationists. I've been denounced more than once for pointing out flaws in someone's work. I have to admit that it's also sometimes challenging to critique another's work with grace. Sometimes papers are so bad that it's hard to come up with a kind way of saying, "This stinks."

So how's it going, this creationist peer review? Well... we're working on it. Finding qualified reviewers is challenging. There are few creationists and even fewer noncreationists who are willing to seriouly review creationist papers. Human bias also complicates matters, whether it's bias towards certain reviewers or famous authors or creationist organizations. And not all creationists share the same commitment to peer review (obviously).

Frankly, I think these issues are mostly growing pains. Creationism is going through an "awkward phase." In contrast to past generations (including the pioneers of the creationist movement), the last thirty years has seen the rise of creationists formally trained in relevant disciplines. We have real doctorates in geology, biology, astronomy, etc. This transition from a largely lay movement to a scholarly enterprise will be accompanied by a certain friction. I'm confident it will pass as the number of formally educated creationist researchers increases.

In the meantime, we'll keep doing the best we can, and I pray that more and more creationists will come to value peer review as much as I do.