Daniel Lemire's blog

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Become independent of peer review

When I asked the director of a large—and successful—British software house his most serious problem, he said without hesitation “how to prevent clusters of incompetence from emerging”. I was reminded of that when I noticed the—for me unusual—weight given to the “peer review”. What, if the peers aren’t any better? The mechanism does not protect us from harbouring fragments that are too shallow, too speculative, or—as the case may be—too fraudulent to merit the name of science. (And let us have no illusions: such topics abound! We are fortunate in not having professors in software metrics, animation or key-wording!)

Not only does the mechanism of peer review fail to protect us from disasters, in a certain way it guarantees mediocrity: the genius has no peer. And to make matters worse, his publication record does not reflect his work either. At the time it is done, truly original work—which, in the scientific establishment, is as welcome as unwanted baby—is very hard to publish as it takes at least another ten years for the appropriate journal to be founded. (I sooner blame someone for his publication list being too long than being too short.)

The moral is that we cannot delegate our responsibility to judge ourself. We can forsake it, but not delegate it. By hiding behind the excuse “But that is not my specialty” we degrade ourselves to lame ducks, and we should not do so. A good young scientist is able to explain

  • what he is trying to achieve
  • why he is tackling this in the way he is
  • why he believes he can do it
  • the criterion by which he will decide whether he has succeeded or failed.

He is, in fact, able to explain this to his next-door neighbour. If we are too lazy or too stupid to follow such an explanation, we should resign. By urging young scientists to submit papers for publication and to apply for grants so that we can rely on the judgements of others we make ourselves ridiculous.

Source: Edsger W. Dijkstra, EWD1018, Nuenen, 21 December 1987

Note: I did not write a single word of this blog post (not even the title). But I agree with all of it.