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Nature. 2014 Feb 6;506(7486):93-6. doi: 10.1038/nature12786. Epub 2013 Dec 4.

Modelling the effects of subjective and objective decision making in scientific peer review.

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1] Department of Economics, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TN, UK [2] Department of Economics, Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul 110-745, South Korea.
1] Department of Economics, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TN, UK [2] Department of Economics, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK.
1] MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit (IEU), University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1BN, UK [2] UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK [3] School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TU, UK.


The objective of science is to advance knowledge, primarily in two interlinked ways: circulating ideas, and defending or criticizing the ideas of others. Peer review acts as the gatekeeper to these mechanisms. Given the increasing concern surrounding the reproducibility of much published research, it is critical to understand whether peer review is intrinsically susceptible to failure, or whether other extrinsic factors are responsible that distort scientists' decisions. Here we show that even when scientists are motivated to promote the truth, their behaviour may be influenced, and even dominated, by information gleaned from their peers' behaviour, rather than by their personal dispositions. This phenomenon, known as herding, subjects the scientific community to an inherent risk of converging on an incorrect answer and raises the possibility that, under certain conditions, science may not be self-correcting. We further demonstrate that exercising some subjectivity in reviewer decisions, which serves to curb the herding process, can be beneficial for the scientific community in processing available information to estimate truth more accurately. By examining the impact of different models of reviewer decisions on the dynamic process of publication, and thereby on eventual aggregation of knowledge, we provide a new perspective on the ongoing discussion of how the peer-review process may be improved.

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