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Danger! Big Science Peer Review: Jeff Farias Show

Danger! Big Science Peer Review: Jeff Farias Show

Jeff Farias is a musician and host of Phoenix progressive talk radio's The Jeff Farias Show. Jeff's music is as rich and edgy as his conversation. His interview with author Suzan Mazur follows:

Edited Transcript

Jeff Farias: Friends, thanks for sticking with us on The Jeff Farias Show. It's coming to you live right now on Roots Up Radio, and on Jarva-Vasterorts Local Community Radio 91.1 in Stockholm, Sweden.

As I promised, we're joined now by a very special guest, Suzan Mazur is back with us on the program. She's the author of The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry. She did a recent article on peer review called "The Peer Review Fig Leaf" that is essentially an extension of her work on Altenberg. It's about how the scientific information we get somehow can be manipulated behind the scenes.

Suzan, welcome back to the program.

Suzan Mazur: Jeff - Hi. Thanks very much for having me back. Great to hear your voice, as always, and your great music as well.

Jeff Farias: Thank you, thank you. Great to hear you as well.

I was reading an interview you conducted on peer review about certain science journal publishers massaging the process. And that maybe we're not getting what most people think of when we hear the term peer-reviewed science.

Suzan Mazur: Yes. I did a series of interviews over the past few months about this issue. With each interview the peer review picture looked more and more horrendous. I began researching the subject because I'd heard from various independent scientists about how tough it was for them to get published. I next covered Presidential Medal of Science recipient Lynn Margulis's struggle at the National Academy of Sciences publication PNAS to get papers through the pipeline there that she had sponsored. PNAS articles are anonymously reviewed so the politics is unclear -- the review of papers happens behind the scenes

Following the Margulis story, I interviewed David Noble. Noble is the science historian from York University in Canada who was a partner of Ralph Nader's in cofounding the National Coalition for Universities, opposing the corporatization of universities. Noble thinks peer review is not desirable at all. In fact, he thinks peer review is censorship.

My most recent interview was with Vera Hassner Sharav, founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. Hassner Sharav cited one of the scientific publishers -- "Elsevier published propaganda favoring Vioxx as "peer-reviewed" in articles in a phony journal paid for by Merck."

Then activist scientists like Berkeley microbial ecologist and mycologist Ignacio Chapela, emailed me saying that Science is corrupt, Big Science that is, and that "the products of real science ("little-s" science) are not really that important anymore - otherwise, would we not have someone with some power stepping-in and demanding at least some modicum of real science?"

Some scientists say Science has so corroded that it's falling apart. Little science and amateur scientists, meanwhile, are still out there and still trying to get their work out there. But Big Science is seriously corrupt is the growing consensus.

Jeff Farias: Corporations and particularly drug corporations like Merck are sort of taking over the peer review process? Things aren't actually being peer-reviewed -- they're being propagandized? They're getting results they want ahead of time and destroying public confidence in the peer review process?

Suzan Mazur: Ads are running disguised as articles in these journals. And then the journal publishers themselves have suspect boards of directors. Like Wiley, for instance, a public company that's one of the biggest science publishers.

I approached Wiley with a series of questions they refused to answer. Wiley's got the CEO of Moody's on the board as well as the former CFO of Dow Jones on the board.

So it's profit driven.

Jeff Farias: It's about bottom line instead of actual science. The concept of peer review is that a scientist puts a paper together and then other people in the field research the paper to assess its validity, whether or not the claims made are in fact communicated and can be reproduced And then it's presented to the public.

One scientist or group of scientists does the study, and a whole group of people connected and not connected to this group verifies the work. So what I'm saying is we're not getting the legitimate verifications of things that we're being told are peer-reviewed.

Suzan Mazur: Scientists are also hiring ghostwriters to write their papers for them. In fact,The Wall Street Journal cited Big Scientific journal publishers -- like Reed Elsevier and Thompson Corp. -- were via their communications companies, charging scientists $30,000 to whip up their papers so these scientists could "pile up high-profile publications, the main currency of advancement".

When the scientists are not writing the paper and the public is getting the information that's being passed onto them by financial people who don't understand the science -- we're on the losing end of the stick.

Another piece of astonishing information -- this past week I learned that MIT Press does not fact check its books. MIT Press is the publisher of the Altenberg 16's Extended Synthesis book.

The Extended Synthesis book just came out and on the very first page the book's editors refer to a labelling "by the media" of the scientists attending Altenberg as "the Altenberg 16", which I contested because that whole concept of the Altenberg 16 was born in my story in March 2008 I was in touch with Robert Prior, Executive Editor of MIT Press, who advised that MIT refuses to correct future editions of the book and attribute this to me.

Now you think of MIT Press. And you think this is something excellent The best science can present. But when I asked Robet Prior if the Extended Synthesis book had been fact-checked he said no, we don't fact check our books here at MIT Press. The book is coming to you from the MIT copyediting department.

I had a recent conversation with Richard Milner about his book Darwin's Universe, which came out of the University of California, Berkeley Press. And Milner said UC Berkeley editors meticulously fact-checked his book.

Apparently there's a consolidation going on with university presses. MIT, Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago are all under the Triliteral banner. They're cutting corners, cutting costs. So what you're getting is -- you don't know what you're getting. It's all falling apart.

Jeff Farias: But are you in favor of the concept of legitimate peer review?

Suzan Mazur: I agree that the whole Big Science enterprise seems to be falling apart. And the public has inserted itself in the real science discussion because it no longer trusts what's coming from the Science Establishment. It's a very interesting time, particularly regarding the evolution issue. Big Evolutionary Science is now coming unglued and the books and critiques out now reflect that.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini's book What Darwin Got Wrong, my book, Richard Lewontin's piece "Not So Natural Selection", the debate that's happening on Science for the People and elsewhere online. And Stuart Newman's work in the Extended Synthesis book, although the media appears to be ignoring the ES book as an entity.

Also, Chicago University geneticist Jerry Coyne has been coming out swinging in defense of the collapsing Modern Synthesis.

The Nation magazine picked up Coyne's piece in which he trashed Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's work, two evolutionary thinkers who represent the new science. And the magazine censored me, refusing to publish my story two years ago with Nation mag managing editor Roane Carey emailing me as follows:

6/3/2008 "Suzan, while your argument undoubtedly deserves an airing, I still think our mag is not the right venue for this piece. We don't usually stray into scientific debates in this kind of way. I urge you to try somewhere else--if not a popular science journal, then maybe one that's less focused on politics/ culture than The Nation. Regards, Roane [Carey, Managing Editor]."

Coyne and his pals have cyber-bullied me -- KILL THE MESSENGER -- as well as Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini.

Jeff Farias: What do we need to do to reform the process? To get the corruption out of the peer review process so that people can trust the science that's being reported?

Suzan Mazur: In my interview with David Noble. Have you ever had him on the show?

Jeff Farias: I don't believe so.

Suzan Mazur: Noble proposed that what needs to be done are two things. Noble pointed out that after World War II when the National Science Foundatioin was set up, there was a decision made that scientists would constitute that organization and citizens would be excluded. So what David Noble is suggesting is that citizens now be included on those science panels. The public should be let in as it is now letting itself in on evolutionary science discussions on the Internet.

The other point that David Noble made was that the Birch Bayh-Robert Dole amendement to the Patent Act should be reversed. Revoked. Bayh-Dole passed in 1980 and it said. I'm quoting David Noble:

"What the Bayh-Dole amendment said was that universities automatically now own all patent rights on publicly funded research. What that meant was that universities were now in the patent holding business. They could license private industry and in that way give them the rights over the results of the research funded by the taxpayer."

He described it as the biggest giveaway in American history. He thinks that that should be reversed. In other words, what we have now are these academic mafias, as Adrian Bejan -- a professor at Duke University described them as academic mafias. You've got these big groups of scientists working on the same project -- instead of small groups or individual scientists working on small projects. And the public's money is being used to fund these Big Science projects and the public has virtually no say.

Jeff Farias: It's been taken over by corporate interests essentially.

Suzan Mazur: It's owned by industry and the universities. And scientists become businessmen because they are under contract to the universities. Citizens are left out of the money and left out of the information. The ownership of the information belongs to the corporations and university partners, and the corporations can censor whatever they want.

Jeff Farias: They can affect the peer-review report. And bring products to market -- Vioxx is a great example -- that may not necessarily be safe for the public but they've spent a lot on research and development of this product and there's a great corporate push to take that product to market.

Suzan Mazur: Right.

Jeff Farias: That's pretty frightening stuff. You also mention in the interview some controversies with the American Psychiatric Association.

Suzan Mazur: There's a big APA conference May 22-26 in New Orleans. It's open to the public but it costs almost $1,000 to attend this meeting. So that pretty much excludes the public. But then there are special sessions where the public cannot attend. And in those sessions there will be discussions about specific cases. Resident physicians will be admitted in these discussions. The public can't participate in these.

Dr. Charles Schulz is presenting at APA -- he's chairman of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School. There's a big to-do regarding a child who committed suicide in one of Schulz's clinical trials. Mary Weiss, the mother of the child who died, wanted to attend the APA Schulz session "How to help parents of a first psychotic episode patient". She's been refused admission.

So I contacted Dr. Schulz for comment and his office said that he would like to send a copy of his book to her on the Early Stages of Schizophrenia.

Jeff Farias: Wow.

Suzan Mazur: There's also a book that's just come out called "Anatomy of an Epidemic," by Robert Whitaker. He actually attended some of these sessions at a previous APA conference and he talks about them in his book. He told me he agrees with Vera Hassner Sharav that the APA sessions were "humdingers".

Jeff Farias: So what steps should be taken to stop abuse of the peer review system?

Suzan Mazur: David Noble had some great insights. He recommends that there be no peer review process. Because it is censorship. He thinks everyone has a right to be published.

Peer review is largely a way for scientists to rack up points on their way to getting grant money. The more papers that are published, the more citations, the more visability, the more money.

It's not anything like it was first intended to be -- peer review. One scientist helping another to fix up an equation that was off by a little bit. It's become a gaming of the system. And even the so-called open peer review journals charge authors to be published -- $1,000 to $2,000 per article.

I think that more pressure should be put on the Big Science journal publishers to look at what they're doing in terms of emphasizing the profit motive over science. Basically these publishers are divorced from the science.

The Big Science journals themselves are put together rather mysteriously. How they're funded is mysterious. The editorial assistants get paid but not the editors. And then the journal goes off to Wiley, off to Elsevier -- both public companies -- to be published. Hundreds of thousands of people involved in the peer review process at these journals -- reviewers, authors, editors and board members -- for some reason don't get paid? I think pressure should be put on these Big Science publishers to answer the public's questions about the setup.

Here are my questions to Wiley, which went unanswered:

"1. As one of the top publishers of science journals and a public corporation, is Wiley aware that the public knows the science peer-review journal system is a major factor corrupting science?

2. Is Wiley concerned that science peer review is increasingly viewed by the public as censorship -- a way of keeping out the public, who actually fund science?

3. Why does Wiley approve of anonymous peer review of journal articles? There are complaints that too often when a paper is submitted that exposes the errors of science journal editors, the paper is simply rejected and there is no avenue of appeal regarding such unethical publication practices. A psychologist complained this happened in submitting to a Blackwell, now-Wiley psychology journal. In the case of your anatomy journals, there are complaints about a possible conflict of interest regarding what is acceptable content because many of the journal editors are based on the University of Utah campus where the LDS church has a significant presence and a gene-centered approach to science is favored.

4. Is Wiley at all concerned by lack of operational financial transparency on the part of its science journals? For example, Wiley Evolution and Development journal editor-in-chief Rudy Raff told me each of his editors gets an allowance FOR an editorial assistant (he wouldn't say how much) but that the editors do not get paid nor do the anonymous referees. Raff says it's "traditional community service" -- but the public increasingly sees the practice as a gaming of the system. What is your response?

5. Does Wiley see a serious disconnect between its corporate board of directors who endorse the Wiley journal product and pass it on to the public -- but may not understand the science -- and the scientists who actually write the anonymously-reviewed journal articles for publication?"

Jeff Farias: We need some sort of system of review here, don't we? Maybe the current system is broken but there should be some sort of process by which papers and discoveries are verified and reviewed. Or do you think we should leave it to the free market?

Suzan Mazur: I really like David Noble's idea of citizens sitting on the government science boards. I think we should be encouraging more amateur science, fund more independent research so you don't have all the research tied to corporate interests. I think it has to be broken down to a more honest kind of science. And scientists are fighting that. They don't want it to happen because it cuts into their income.

Jeff Farias: It all comes down to the dollars and cents essentially.

Suzan Mazur: Yes. For instance, you've got Massimo Pigliucci, one of the organizers of the Altenberg 16 two-day conference who has now started a publication called Philosophy and Theory in Biology with six of the Altenberg 16 scientists. So there'll be papers going through that "journal" that are going to be warmly received if the thinking is along the lines of the Extended Synthesis. So it's a kind of pack mentality which isn't healthy for science.

Jeff Farias: As always, Suzan, this is fascinating stuff to consider. To think about the whole concept of peer review is something, I think, most people just take for granted.

Suzan Mazur: Those two points: One is getting citizens on the government science panels at the highest level -- informed citizens. And the other is revoking the Bayh-Dole amendment so science can open up again and be more honest. Big Science needs to be coming down to little science. The big "S" -- make it a little "s" for science.

Jeff Farias: And what's making it the big "S" instead of the little "s" seems to be corporate involvement.

Suzan Mazur: Right. The taxpayer money that's being fed in without the taxpayer involvement.

Jeff Farias: Interesting. As always, it's great speaking with you I want to thank you for your time today. Links to your recent articles on Altenberg 16 at Scoop and also at CounterPunch are up on our web site today.

It's always very thought provoking and I really enjoyed speaking with you. We'll have to do it again sometime.

Suzan Mazur: Thanks very much Jeff.


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