Peer review does not mean we can trust a published paper

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

“The benefit of published work is that if they have passed the muster of peer review future researchers can have faith in the results”, writes a commenter at The Economist. Such statements are commonplace.

I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing is more fatal to the scientific endeavour than having “faith” in a previously published result — as the string of failed replications in oncology and in social psychology is showing. See also the trivial but crucial spreadsheet error in the economics paper that underlies many austerity policies.

Studies have shown that peer-reviewers on average spend about 2-3 hours in evaluating a paper that’s been sent their way. There is simply no way for even an expert to judge in that time whether a paper is correct: the best they can do is say “this looks legitimate, the authors seem to have gone about things the right way”.

Now that is…

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