Aug 28, 2020

The Peer Review Crisis

Posted by in categories: chemistry, education, ethics

With moral purity inserted as a component to the internal processes for all academic publications, it will henceforth become impossible to pursue the vital schema of conjecture and refutation.

Shocked that one of their own could express a heterodox opinion on the value of de rigueur equity, diversity and inclusion policies, chemistry professors around the world immediately demanded the paper be retracted. Mob justice was swift. In an open letter to “our community” days after publication, the publisher of Angewandte Chemie announced it had suspended the two senior editors who handled the article, and permanently removed from its list of experts the two peer reviewers involved. The article was also expunged from its website. The publisher then pledged to assemble a “diverse group of external advisers” to thoroughly root out “the potential for discrimination and foster diversity at all levels” of the journal.

Not to be outdone, Brock’s provost also disowned Hudlicky in a press statement, calling his views “utterly at odds with the values” of the university; the school then drew attention to its own efforts to purge unconscious bias from its ranks and to further the goals of “accessibility, reconciliation and decolonization.” (None of which have anything to do with synthetic organic chemistry, by the way.) Brock’s knee-jerk criticism of Hudlicky is now also under review, following a formal complaint by another professor that the provost’s statement violates the school’s commitment to freedom of expression.

Hudlicky — who told Retraction Watch “the witch hunt is on” — clearly had the misfortune to make a few cranky comments at a time when putting heads on pikes is all the rage. But what of the implications his situation entails for the entirety of the peer-review process? Given the scorched earth treatment handed out to the editors and peer reviewers involved at Angewandte Chemie, the new marching orders for academic journals seem perfectly clear — peer reviewers are now expected to vet articles not just for coherence and relevance to the scientific field in question, but also for alignment with whatever political views may currently hold sway with the community-at-large. If a publication-worthy paper comes across your desk that questions or undermines orthodox public opinion in any way — even in a footnote — and you approve it, your job may be forfeit. Conform or disappear.

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