Note: This text is scanned and OCR'd and may have uncorrected typos.

Creative Disagreement

Open peer Commentary adds a vital dimension to review procedures



Stevan Harnad



Do scientists agree? It is not only unrealistic to suppose that they do, but probably just as unrealistic to think that they ought to. Agreement is for what is already established scientific history. The current and vital ongoing aspect of science consists of an active and often heated interaction of data, ideas and minds, in a process one might call "creative disagreement." The "scientific method" is largely derived from a reconstruction based on selective hindsight. What actually goes on has much less the flavor of a systematic method than of trial and error, conjecture, chance, competition and even dialectic.

What makes this enterprise science is not any "method," but the fact that the entire process is at all times answerable to three fundamental constraints. The first is the most general one, namely. logical consistency: science must not be self-contradictory. The second is testability: hypotheses must be confirmable or falsifiable by experiment. The last constraint is that science must be a public, self-corrective process; not public in the sense of the general public—the role of popular opinion in science is an ethical, rather than a scientific concern— but public in the sense of one's peers, one's fellow-scientists.


The Pros and Cons of Peer Review

Peer interaction, in the form of repeating and building upon one another's experiments, testing and elaborating one another's theories, and evaluating and criticizing one another's research, is the real medium for the self-corrective aspect of science. It is in fact this medium that helps enforce science's other two constraints (consistency and testability) through peer review of both publication and funding of scientific research.

And peer review certainly performs an indispensable function in this regard. However, it has been found necessary to conduct most peer review anonymously, for much the same reason that voting is done anonymously: to assure that judgments can be made freely and without fear of incurring prejudice or ill will. Such reviewer anonymity (and even "blind" review, in which the reviewee is also anonymous) is certainly the most objective way to facilitate and expedite what is basically a subjective process:evaluating the work of one's peers. The system is indispensable, and to a great extent the optimal one that one could hope for, given the scientific community's universal recognition of the three constraints on scientific endeavor.

But there are two important respects in which the peer review system is not sufficient, and in which the self -corrective aim of science would be best served by a complementary mechanism. First, there is the quis custodiet problem of reviewing the reviewers, or rather, the reviewing itself. There is no such thing as a "higher tribunal" of a different kind. Anonymous peers control the funding and publication of the work of their peers. But anonymity, as well as the closed conduct of the reviewing procedure itself (even though this clearly constitutes the optimal system), cannot help but infuse a conservative element into an enterprise in which originality and innovation are avowedly at a premium. This conservatism has great utility inasmuch as it enforces the constraints of consistency, testability and self-correctiveness in that large proportion of cases in which peer review has its intended effect. But human frailty being what it is, there will be cases in which the conservative forces of peer review may underrate an effort that is of potential value, or may inadvertently create conditions in which some potentially worthwhile initiatives are stillborn. Secondly, in the very fact that the conduct of peer review is anonymous and closed, many aspects of the "creative disagreement" process are lost, and an unrepresentative impression of univocality takes the place of the much more diverse spectrum of alternatives, critiques and counterexamples that actually exists.

Both respects in which closed peer review is insufficient could be remedied by the establishment of a complementary mechanism, one in which scientists could solicit open peer commentary on their work. Remanding ate interaction to the custody of a "higher tribunal"

(the scientific community at large) would not only provide a medium and an incentive for efforts and initiatives that might otherwise have been buried in the evanescence and anonymity of closed peer review, but it would also focus and preserve the creative disagreement, in a disciplined form, answerable the to print and posterity.


The "CA Treatment"

In 1959, a rather unusual international association was formed. It was unusual because its focal point was not a series of annual meetings but a periodical: Current Anthropology: A World Journal of the Sciences of Man. Current Anthropology (CA) was founded by the University of Chicago anthropologist Sol Tax, under the sponsorship of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, as an experiment in international and interdisciplinary communication In the Sciences of Man.

CA had many innovative features, such as publishing open correspondence from CA Associates concerning problems of current interest to anthropologists the world over. The underlying principle, one of participatory decision-making, was modeled on the practices of certain North American Indian nations, and it was even extended to CA's procedures for refereeing submitted articles. Manuscripts were circulated to a large number of referees, whose comments were communicated to the author. Using these comments, the author made any necessary revisions (with acknowledgements); dissenting comments were co-published with the article. Gradually this procedure evolved into a more efficient one, involve ing two rounds: first, multiple referee ing and revision; then formal commentary tray on the revised draft. At this point it became apparent that the author's re sponse to the commentaries would complete the treatment, and the current form of the "CA treatment" (as it came to be called) was born.

The CA project was very enthusias tically received by the world community anthropologists, as well it might, since it was a phenomenon of their own making, and one that operated under their own continual guidance. In twenty years its subscribership grew to over 7,000, with a core of 3.000 CA associates; the journal became quite influential, and the "CA treatment" quite sought after by authors.


"Chain Letter"

CA's success was not entirely lost on disciplines other than anthropology. In the fall of 1975, I sent an academic "chain letter" to about 50 biobehavioral scientists in which I suggested trying out the (CA) treatment in the behavioral and brain sciences. I proposed founding a new journal called "Current Commentary in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences" (CCRBS), modeled entirely on the CA method. Recipients of my letter were invited to become formally associated with the project and to pass on the "chain" to qualified nominees of their choice.

The scope of the subject matter I saw as appropriate for CCBBS was wide: everything from molecular neurobiology and invertebrate behavior to cognition, language and artificial intelligence. Even topics in the philosophy of science and mind were to have a place. The journal would publish reports of important current work on which the author wished to invite commentary. Such a "target" article could come from anywhere within the biobehavioral spectrum (psychology, behavioral biology and neuroscience) as long as it was judged by the referees to have sufficient scope and significance to merit commentary. Editors of specialty journals would be asked to recommend CCBBS treatment for submissions which they thought would profit by it, and CCBBS would in turn redirect its own submissions to specialty journals in cases where the CCBBS treatment did not appear to be warranted. Far from competing with the specialty journals, I wanted this new service to complement them in a unique and important way.

Within six months the "chain" had drawn in over 100 associates, including a number of the most distinguished biobehavioral scientists the world over; within a year the project had a prestigious publisher, Cambridge University Press, and in 1978, under the slightly modified tide of The Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), the first volume appeared. In mid-1979, BBS, with an international subscribership of 1,500 and an associate-ship of 600, seems well on its way to assuming in the biobehavioral sciences the role that CA has assumed in the Sciences of Man.


How Open Peer Commentary Works

From the outset it was apparent that the "CA treatment" concept would need to be modified in order to adapt to the more generalized context of the behavioral and brain sciences. Anthropologists are a smaller and more coherent population world-wide than behavioral and brain scientists; moreover, the geographic locus of a commentator has a certain face validity with respect to the subject matter of anthropology that it does not have in the biobehavioral sciences. Hence CA's policy of only having formal CA associates perform commentary, and of attempting to cycle even-handedly through that associates ship so as to encourage all associates to comment at some time, was not appropriate for BBS. Although BBS associates still form a core - for purposes of refereeing, and a file describing their specialties and interests is maintained by the editorial office to help select them for performing commentary, BBS also surveys the international biobehavioral science community at large for commentators. The sources used for this are the target article's bibliography, the suggestions of the referees, the suggestions of the author and, most importantly, literature searches, using the modern bibliographic resources such as abstracts, citation indices and computer retrieval. BBS is consequently in a position to convene an instant international conference on an important current topic by mail, incurring far less time and expense than an actual conference, and with incomparably greater scope—while maintaining the discipline and rigor of the formal written medium.

Here is how the Open Peer Commentary Process works. First, a manuscript must be judged to merit this intensive and elaborate service. Eight referees, specialists in the paper's subject matter and in related areas across the biobehavioral science spectrum, evaluate the manuscript to assess whether: it bears in a significant way on some current controversial issues in behavioral and brain science: its findings strongly contradict some well-established aspects of current research and theory; it criticizes the findings, practices, or principles of an accepted or influential line of work; it unifies a substantial amount of disparate research; it has important cross-disciplinary ramifications; it introduces an innovative methodology or formalism; it- meaningfully integrates a body of brain and behavioral data; it places an area into evolutionary or ecological perspective; and so on.

If accepted, the "target article" is circulated to about 100 potential commentators (selected by the methods described earlier). The first step in the "self-corrective" process occurs when the commentators self-select in terms of who accepts the invitation to comment. About 30 percent do. Their 1,000-word commentaries are reviewed by the editor for style and relevance. To keep the commentary as open as possible, editorial intervention is kept to a minimum; but since the process of selecting commentators is fallible, occasional commentaries of doubtful quality or relevance are formally refereed, as are all commentaries that report original data (to assure that BBS can be cited as a valid archival source of empirical data in -such cases). Some effort is also made to minimize repetition from commentary to commentary. All accepted commentaries are then sent to the author for his formal response.


Preserved in Print

The content of the commentaries is lively and varied. Some attempt to point out inconsistencies in the author's reasoning, conflicting data and failures to replicate. But just as often the commentaries are supportive, extending and elaborating the authors ideas and data, citing further positive - evidence as well as unexpected ramifications in other areas. Sometimes commentators will elect to devote their commentary to an exposition of their own work. In many cases this is appropriate, and indeed the reason why the commentator was selected; but when the commentator selection process occasionally misfires, or when the commentator wisunderstands the process and fails to address himself relevantly to the target article, the "openness" of the process no longer has face validity, and refereeing must be resorted to. Some intervention is also necessary when a criticism waxes too shrill or becomes ad hominem.

But all in all, little editorial tampering is called for, since the openness of the commentary process is self-corrective. The author gets to reply to all commentators. and can indeed often set off one against the other; there is room for further rounds in Continuing Commentary sections of subsequent issues; and In the end the peer readership is left free to draw its own conclusions. Moreover, a permanent record of the "creative disagreement" is preserved in print, not only for those who are actively involved in research on the problems under discussion, but also -to demonstrate to students and interested laymen the real nature of the peer interaction that underlies the scientific method.