Taming a Claim

How can you tell if a scientific claim is based on validated research? It's not easy, but one thing you can do is look for a full reference to the peer-reviewed paper. Such references follow a very specific style and always give the name of the journal. A typical reference is shown below:

Aisen PS, Schafer KA, Grundman M, Pfeiffer E, Sano M, Davis KL, Farlow MR, Jin S, Thomas RG, Thal LJ, for the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study. Effects of rofecoxib or naproxen vs. placebo on Alzheimer disease progression. JAMA 2003; 289: 2819-2826.

The Value of Peer Review

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­Think of peer review as a quality-control system. When a team of reviewers gives a green light to a particular paper, they are saying the science described in the paper is valid and trustworthy. This is similar to what quality-control inspectors do at a manufacturing plant. They check products by sight, sound, feel, smell or even taste to locate imperfections that might cause harm or dissatisfaction in the end-user audience. Inspectors adhere to strict quality standards, discarding any product that doesn't meet the standard. Peer review does the same thing by setting a scientific standard.

­Validating scientific results benefits everyone, from the scientists doing the work to consumers like you who eventually hear about the research on the evening news. Let's look briefly at the value peer review brings to various stakeholders:

  • For authors, peer review provides a patina of respectability on their work. A scientist who publishes in his field's most prestigious journal gets to bask in the glow of the publication's reputation. He may get called for more interviews and may have future research viewed more favorably by funding bodies.
  • For journal editors, peer review informs their decision-making process. An editor can publish a paper with much greater confidence if he knows that paper has been thoroughly vetted by a team of qualified referees. The editor's management of the peer-review process is directly related to the reputation of the journal. If he consistently selects papers of the highest quality, he will enhance the reputation of his journal. If, on the other hand, he allows the occasional substandard paper to be published, he can erode the journal's credibility.
  • For other scientists, peer review acts as a mechanism to help prioritize what they read. Considering there are 21,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals available, this is a significant benefit for the average overworked scientist [source: Sense About Science]. By focusing only on the top four or five journals in his field, a scientist can assume he's reading the most important papers of the highest quality. It's sort of like using the New York Times bestseller list to determine which novel you're going to read next.
  • For nonscientists, peer review acts like a quality standard that helps make sense of scientific claims. Those claims -- about everything from health care remedies to vacuum cleaners -- fill news stories, TV ads and Web sites. Ethical and conscientious writers and producers will indicate whether research cited in an article or ad has been published and provide the name of the journal. By making sure scientific claims are based on research published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, consumers can feel a measure of protection against hucksters trying to use "science" to sell their products.

­Still, there are many scientists who question the value of peer review. According to this group, the negative aspects of peer review far outweigh its benefits. Next, we'll present some of the arguments against peer review.