Of Peers and Peer Review

Childhood Obesity News has looked at various types of conflict of interest. In 1994 Cynthia Crossen, who writes for The Wall Street Journal, published an important book, Tainted Truth, that is still assigned reading in college courses. It examined sponsored scientific studies, advertising, lying with statistics, research used in court, and the conflict of interest that seems ingrained in an awful lot of biomedical research. The peer review system can sometimes embody any or all of those conflicts.

In Tainted Truth, the chapter titled “Drugs and Money” explores what Crossen calls “the dangerous ground that lies between researchers and the wealthy drug companies that pay them.” That dangerous ground is populated by scientists, not all of whom have the same values.

When a paper is submitted to a scientific journal, it is vetted by other scientists, which is only right, because who else would have a clue about the validity of any part of a study? The editor needs to find two people with enough background to judge whether this new stuff should be given space on the page. (If a tie-breaker is needed, make that three people.)

A serious problem for editors is that, due to the increasing fragmentation and specialization of scientific fields, the more abstruse the research the smaller the pool of fellow researchers who are qualified to comment on it.

Scientists = Problems

Apparently, a lot of reviewing was and is done by people who could not really be deemed the peers of the authors. No disrespect to graduate students or postdoctoral fellows, but should they really be in the decision-making seat when it comes to publishing the work of their seniors? The arguments against inter-generational criticism are just as good as the arguments for it.

And all the reviewers are volunteers, doing this service out of abstract and altruistic love of the science, or at least that is the theory. Also, they are quite busy and, as Crossen reminds us, “can’t take the time to scrutinize the raw data, let alone replicate the research.”

Nobody wants to think that scientists would be small-minded or grasping, but one fact is inescapable: the people writing the articles and the people reviewing the articles are in the same business, so it would not be at all surprising if they are chasing the same grant dollars. If there might be a chance to secure a few million dollars for their own research, how many are too honorable to take advantage of a rival’s vulnerable position?

There is also a thing called the “halo effect,” which tends to bless the people who already have reputations — especially if they hail from prestigious educational institutions. As always, a researcher who is relentlessly au courant, or the contemporary version of hip, whatever that may be at the moment, will gather fans.

The cult of personality can make a difference in how research papers are perceived and received. Also, a certain amount of collegial deference and courtesy exists. One scientist may sneakily try to derail another’s success, but they can’t be too blatant about it and expect to survive an entire career in academia. In addition to all that, says Crossen,

The sheer volume of biomedical journals — some 15,000 journals publish about 250,000 articles a month — puts insupportable demands on the system. Whatever the outcome of the peer review, the editor of the journal may decide to accept or reject the article for editorial or personal reasons.

Peter Stevens of NaturalRevolution.org recently quoted Cynthia Crossen:

Commenting on the state of scientific research, she wrote: “The road to hell was paved with the flood of corporate research dollars that eagerly filled gaps left by slashed government research funding.” Her data on financial involvement showed that in 1981 the drug industry “gave” $292 million to colleges and universities for research. By 1991, this figure had risen to $2.1 billion.

Crossen’s point, and Stevens’, being that when the government (which has at least some shred of credibility) will not pay for necessary science, private interests are only too happy to step in, bestow dollars, and influence outcomes.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact In America, amazon.com, current
Source: “How Big Pharma Scam Patients, and Manipulate Doctors and Scientists, naturalrevolution.org, 10/08/17
Photo credit: ccPixs.com on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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