Peer review is supposed to combat fraud, but it can just as easily hold back radical discoveries, says Terence Kealey

Sometimes, trusting what scientists tell us can be a bit difficult. One day we are told that artificial sweeteners help prevent obesity; the next, that they actually cause it.
One day coffee is bad for us, then it's good, then it's bad again. The generous explanation for these see-saws is that science is always developing our understanding. But there is a more sinister concern: fraud.

No fewer than 15 per cent of scientists at the National Institutes of Health (the American government's top health laboratory) recently admitted to bending data to fit their theories.

Secret society: Robert Boyle

The myth is that science is the noble search for truth. The reality is that scientists are selfish. In the old days, scientists often published secretly to safeguard - and profit from - their discoveries.

On writing a paper, a researcher at a university might deposit it in a college's safe, publishing it only if someone else made the same discovery later. The first scientist would release his data to make sure everyone knew he had got there first.

The same principle was behind the use of codes to protect intellectual property. In 1676, Hooke published his law of elasticity as a Latin anagram - "ceiiinosssttuu".

This made sure that he would be credited for the idea, which he later revealed to be "ut tension sic vis": stress is proportional to strain.

Inevitably, this secrecy caused problems, so during the 17th century Robert Boyle created a club within which scientists did reveal everything to their fellows. Among the group, people still worried about being scooped, but as members kept their findings secret from non-members, the insiders enjoyed huge advantages.

The name of this association was the Royal Society.

The conventional narrative holds that, as the advantages of pooling knowledge became obvious, all scientists adopted the Royal Society's conventions: now, scientific papers are published freely.

But that's not quite true. Actually, scientific journals are as closed as the Royal Society once was. The gatekeeper is "peer review": that is, papers are screened by experts, who judge if the experiments the manuscripts describe are credible.

But how, without having actually witnessed the experiments, can experts determine that? Reviewers have to trust the authors to have told the truth. Consequently, the most important part of a paper is the name at the top.

If a well-known scientist submits a paper, it will probably be accepted; if an unknown submits one, it will probably be rejected. Science is still a closed club - partly to ensure that only accurate papers are published, but largely to prevent fraud.

But peer review carries dangers. First, it allows dunderheads to block unexpected ideas. Everybody within the scientific community knows of researchers such as Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for discovering gene jumping, a process by which scraps of DNA move about the genome.

She was forced to publish her findings informally, in the annual reports of the Carnegie Institution, because she could not persuade peer reviewers to accept them.

Moreover, peer review is slow, and allows unscrupulous reviewers to plunder their competitors' papers and to block their publication.

As we enter the Wiki-world, peer review will lighten. Scientific publishing is being transformed by the web: people once paid for hard copies of journals, but now free periodicals such as Public Library of Science Biology proliferate online.

They are still peer-reviewed, but soon reputable scientists will start to publish their own electronic papers. The convenience will be irresistible.

Some form of peer review will need to survive, to deter fraudsters, but it will probably resemble the one practised by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, in which, essentially, distinguished friends simply vouch for each other.

And a good thing, too. Peer review was always an illusion, providing a deceptive imprimatur of objective truth.

Less formal arrangements will remind us that new science is always provisional - and that validation comes only after publication, when others try to reproduce the work.
# Terence Kealey is Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham. His new book 'Sex, Science and Profits' (Heinemann) is available for £18 + £1.25 p&p. Call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or go to