Researchers commonly refer to peer review as the “gold standard,” which makes it seem as if a peer-reviewed paper — one sent by journal editors to experts in the field who assess and critique it before publication — must be legitimate, and one that’s not reviewed must be untrustworthy. But peer review, a practice dating to the 17th century, is neither golden nor standardized. Studies have shown that journal editors prefer reviewers of the same gender, that women are underrepresented in the peer review process, and that reviewers tend to be influenced by demographic factors like the author’s gender or institutional affiliation. Shoddy work often makes it past peer reviewers, while excellent research has been shot down. Peer reviewers often fail to detect bad research, conflicts of interest and corporate ghostwriting.
Meanwhile, bad actors exploit the process for professional or financial gain, leveraging peer review to mislead decision-makers. For instance, the National Football League used the words “peer review” to fend off criticism of studies by the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, a task force the league founded in 1994, which found little long-term harm from sport-induced brain injuries in players. But the New York Times later discovered that the scientists involved had omitted more than 100 diagnosed concussions from their studies. What’s more, the NFL’s claim that the research had been rigorously vetted ignored that the process was incredibly contentious: Some reviewers were adamant that the papers should not have been published at all.