[Update, May 2019: A re-edited version of the paper is now posted in a working paper collection: https://osf.io/q7jdv/ .]
Our new paper is available here: Phillips-Burstyn-Carter, Peer Review Review, working paper 23jun15. The tables are linked from the document, but if that does not work: Table 1, Table 2. The appendices are linked from Table 1 (so you can read them all; go ahead, make a day of it…you know you want to).
Background: A widespread belief holds that the journal peer-review process has magical powers to ensure that published claims are correct. While this misperception has limited consequences in many fields, in public health it results in consumer, clinical, and policy decisions being based on blind faith in the accuracy of published claims. At best, the review process is merely a couple of readers — perhaps, but not necessarily, highly expert — reading through a paper to ensure the research and presentation are reasonably sound. In reality, even this is often not accomplished.
Methods: We conducted reviews of 12 articles that focused on tobacco harm reduction published in a mainstream public health journal, BMC Public Health, consecutively during 2012-15. We each wrote a reviewer report of the manuscript version that was sent to the journal reviewers, as if we were writing a review for a journal. We then compared these to the reviews written by the journal reviewers. Additionally, we reviewed the changes made to the papers as a result of the journal reviews.
Results: Almost all the papers in the dataset suffered from major flaws, most of which could have been corrected, but none were corrected by the journal review process. The journal peer reviews were almost all inadequate and many contained no substantive comments. Those that contained substantive observations still did not identify most of the blatant major flaws that we noted. In the single case where a journal reviewer identified many of the major flaws, the comments were basically ignored by the authors and the paper was published with no substantive changes. Other than cosmetic improvements, the journal review process was about as likely to make the published version worse than the submitted manuscript, rather than better. Papers with no apparent value were published by the journal and the potential value of other studies was lost because serious flaws in the paper were ignored. Unreported conflict of interest was common among both authors and reviewers.
Conclusions: Faith in the journal peer-review process is misplaced. Even at best, the process cannot promise that a published claim is correct, but in reality it does not even ensure that patent major flaws are not present. In public health, the phrase “according to a peer-reviewed journal article” seems to mean little more than “I read this somewhere.”
Comments on the paper are welcome, of course, either here or via email.