Physicists don’t usually have to put too many proposals before ethics committees in their working lives. (For the uninitiated, in simplistic terms an ethics committee is where a proposal for an experiment on/involving animals and/or humans will be discussed, to see if it is ‘appropriate’. Universities are full of them, and my biologist / psychologist colleagues know them well.) Compared with other forms of science, physics probably has rather few ethical dilemmas. But I’ve had one this week. I’ll be deliberately vague, but hopefuly you should get the picture.
I’ve been asked by a reputable journal to review an article (let’s call it ‘A’) as part of the standard peer review process. What are my thoughts on its content and quality, etc.? Now, I have a look at the article in question and I find that the authors refer heavily to another article (let’s call it ‘B’), in a journal that I haven’t heard of. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I quickly retrieve ‘B’, and have a look at it. No problems so far, but I’m now interested in finding out a bit more about the mysterious journal in which it is published.
The mighty Google works a treat – not only do I find the journal’s website, but, more interesting, up comes a lot of links to blogs where this journal’s name is used in the same sentence as ‘quack’ and ‘pseudoscience’.
Now, here’s the problem. My job is to review article ‘A’, not article ‘B’. My review of ‘A’ should be on the merits of article ‘A’ alone. Shouldn’t it? The fact that the journal where ‘B’ appears has been discussed in a fairly savage light on many science blogs should not influence my thinking as to whether ‘A’ is a piece of quality science. (?) After all, blogs are not necessarily reliable (Says he who is writing a blog) – but they are in a sense ‘peer reviewed’ – that’s what the comments do.
So, what should I do? Decline to review the article? But that just passes the problem to someone else. Try to get one bit of my brain to ignore what another bit knows? Tricky one this.
I suppose one thing it shows is how difficult it is for anyone to make a truly independent judgement about anything. Any background knowledge starts to influence the way you see something.