Science is Stalling.

Part I- Limitations of Journals Today.


Scientists are dependent on the effective communication of their ideas for their research to be accepted and thrive. Despite hundreds of years of technological advances, however, communication of research through modern journals continues to present frustrating and significant barriers to scientific progress at many levels.


Scientists may historically have succumbed to pressure from religious and cultural groups that directed research findings or interpretation. They may, for example, have sought to maintain patronage of their sponsors by tailoring work to be acceptable to them.

Despite immense technological advances, the current research climate involves new, more insidious sources of pressure and bias to the researcher.

In scientific institutions and fields such as Clinical Medicine, there is significant pressure to publish. Publications are required for Doctors to scale the competitive hospital hierarchy. Towing the line with well established trial types, agreeing with current theories and especially trials with positive findings may be deemed more likely to be published by those desperate for publications. To make matters worse, not all letters from other scientists pointing out errors in papers are published such a way that readers are immediately aware of flaws.


Once prepared, researchers must submit their work to the process of publication through peer review, which has further opportunity for bias. It is interesting at this point to note how historically, authorities in knowledge such as Aristotle were extremely pervasive in dictating thought for over 2000 years, despite being fundamentally mistaken. In modern medicine, authority of the few still pervades, through peer review and may be detrimental to scientific progress.


In current practice, whatever their inclinations, researchers are required to submit work to peer reviewed journals to ensure that their findings may be widely read. The Editor of the journal requests that the paper is reviewed by senior researchers, who are likely to be those who are already eminent in that field. By definition, new, original thought may contradict or potentially even overshadow the opinions of the same people who are asked to review the paper. However, the reviewers’ recommendation of whether the paper should be published is often final. Their judgement may be damming and even inhibit chances of the paper being published in any other journals. Furthermore the reviewers are usually free to criticise the paper in any way, with their comments anonymous and no potential for rebuke. Even when reviewers are carefully chosen and comments assessed by the editor it would seem that this peer review is a process that would not particularly be conducive to successful application of new work that questioned current principles. Authority of the few in terms of scientific beliefs prevails.


The problems in the current scientific establishment, however, extend far beyond potential for scientific bias.  Many factors may decide whether papers are accepted for publication and scientific value is only part of the consideration. It is possible that topical nature of the subject matter, the author’s track record and international standing, personal acquaintance and knowledge of the authors work have some effect on suitability for publication. More worryingly, however, potential to affect  financial remuneration by drug companies and potential financial implications to the readerships (e.g. promoting expensive treatments ) may all play a role in the ultimate decision to publish the article. Ultimate acceptability to a journal may be based on the interests and ultimate financial gain of the publishers and editors and entertainment of its readers as much as the quality of the science.

Original, controversial papers, those with negative or unexciting findings or unknown authors and institutions may be less likely to be published despite being of high scientific standard. The converse is also true in that despite the peer review process many poor papers may still get published.

Despite the peer review process limiting numbers of papers published, clinicians are still faced with mountains of academic papers in journals of every speciality in medicine. There are far too many papers published monthly to be able to read, let alone assess and critique fully. There may often only be time to scan from abstracts or conclusions. It is of concern that medical practice may be based on acceptance of summarised conclusions from journals operating under the protective umbrella of peer review. At its worst, the peer review prevents clinicians and scientists from accessing studies that may actually be correct, yet are presented authoritatively with papers that may be biased or wrong. Furthermore, they are less likely to question validity of these articles by not assessing them thoroughly, due to their confidence in peer review. In effect, to some extent, decisions over Clinicians’ choice of reading matter and therefore Clinicians’ opinions are not made by themselves but made for them by fewer, more revered and anonymous ‘authority’ figures.


Van Leeuwenhoek`s work as a microscope pioneer was limited by an inability to read the work of his more aristocratic contemporaries who wrote mostly in Latin or French. Modern limitations to dissemination of science persist. Most journals still require considerable payment before being able to access its articles. However, there has been a trend toward open access publishing and of course this is to be encouraged. Journals such as BioMed Central have freely brought the findings of their authors accessible to worldwide audiences.

 However, research methodology and findings are not the only aspect of a study that should be divulged in proper modern scientific papers. For a paper’s findings to be believed they have to be reproducible. Thus full information and details, including materials and software used should be made accessible and should be included before any paper is published. In the case of software, it should be made open-access – This will allow others to recreate findings and to perform their own studies.  In my own field of ophthalmology scientists have devised various ocular biometrics that may be reliable and valid as claimed. However the authors often do not make the software available for others to use. This prevents other experimenters from confirming whether the findings are indeed correct. Claims for any product would not be believed without public demonstration a hundred years ago and should not be tolerated by editors today without testing and distribution of open –access software. Furthermore it is particularly important that any proposed measures (e.g., software-based) are made available as far as possible to the scientific community. It seems of little use to present them otherwise.


At the beginning of the eighteenth century Daniel Fahrenheit invented the thermometer and importantly a scale to calibrate it, this was a breakthrough in the history of science. The process continued with other units of measurement. [2]

In the eighteenth century in France there were around 2000 units of distance measure in use. A commission of scientists was set up to try and establish a uniform system. They made a new start and decided to use physical constants as a base, namely the length of a meridian –this estimation of length of a line passing between the two poles was meticulously and painstakingly made at great cost. In 1798, to insure this and other units could be used internationally, new terms were coined from Latin and Greek roots, namely the metre, litre and gram.

In contrast in medical science today countless measures exist that are published in a format that others cannot reproduce or check. Sometimes the set up would be just too expensive to reproduce, but other times the measures or software details are withheld for no apparent reason, presumably for financial or bureaucratic gain. Even if the authors of individual papers are unwilling to allow their findings to properly be used to advance science, editors and countless scientific or clinical committees should intervene to ensure that the best available measures are decided upon and subsequently internationally disseminated to all who want to use it in their work.


Thus there are many reasons why the modern peer review system can be argued to have become a disadvantage to science. It must be conceded that there are of course benefits to this system. I myself continue write and review regularly for international journals and believe they currently are important for research scientists as no practical alternative exists. However I would hope that over time the limitations and problems with current systems are addressed with development in the future of new ways of disseminating information.


To this end I support site such as the scienceblogging website wholeheartedly. They are open access and allow for users to update and express research findings without fear of censorship by anonymous ‘experts’.  As with peer review, some papers will be of poor quality, but users should judge their merits and post notes accordingly so that they are judged fairly by a larger number of peers who are confident enough to be open and defend any criticisms they make. Papers may thus be graded by a number of named users- but never fully omitted because few persons disagree.

Furthermore, any respect or acclaim for postings will depend not just on the fact that a comment had been posted but genuinely on the quality of the work as judged by readers. If the trend were to continue in this manner, Scientists hoping to publish in this way would be less tempted towards positive bias and massaging statistics to meet perceived journal expectations.  Perhaps papers would even be more believable.


Of course this site will start small, but over time a large database of papers is hoped for and a large number of free thinking researchers. Few authors at this current time can survive without peer reviewed publications but as this site develops the numbers of papers submitted here could grow and the contributions to science amplified exponentially. As scientists and researchers we should support the site and contribute as far as possible and as much as possible.


Of course I am sure many of my colleagues will disagree with many of my remarks above and I welcome their criticisms, so long as they are made through open, accessible means…


Tariq Aslam