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Open letter to science editors

SCIENTIFIC REFEREEING

  •  A conflict of interest marks the process by which scientific papers are selected for publication.

In June of last year Oreste Piccioni filed suit against two Nobel laureates, Emilio Segre and Owen Chamberlain.  Piccioni claimed that Segre and Chamberlain used his design for an antiproton experiment in their prize-winning work, but gave him no credit for it.  The case, which has been extensively analyzed in the popular and scientific press, spawned a letter to Physics Today (December, 1972, p. 13) which will interest many of our readers:

Leonard Weisberg asks (Physics Today, September, page 13) why so much passion is raised over "unorthodox" scientific theories.  Just as the politician wraps himself in the flag and accuses all who disagree with him as being un-American, the scientist wraps himself in phrases such as "(lack of) causative basis for his ideas" and accuses others of being unscientific.  The answer is "vested interests."

That this is so is evidenced in these columns by the complaints concerning reviewing for publications.  Almost no one will disagree that it is an adversary process, and yet no reviewer will disqualify himself as one having a conflict of interest.  In fact, the editor's choice of reviewer insures that just such a situation occurs.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that one never really knows who his adversary is.

We do not accept this kind of process in other aspects of our lives, but acquiesce to it in our scientific lives.  The system works when an idea agrees with the adversary's interests, but breaks down when the idea is "unorthodox."

Sometimes, when one is fortunate, one gets a very unusual adversary who is secure in his own right, and a new idea is exposed for consideration.  However, to depend on such a chance encounter is disheartening for the author and self-defeating for science.  I agree with Alfred Lande (Physics Today, May 1971, page 68) that the reviewing process "is inadmissible censorship when one or even three referees try to block an article as incompetent when their own private but precious standpoint differs from that of the author . . ."

Until the system is changed, I feel that Oreste Piccioni is doing a service for science at large when he demands a hearing outside an arena of possible conflicts of interest.  I know nothing about the case, but I do agree most heartily with his statement, "I think it's high time that physicists understand that the basic rules of morality are not for them to create because they have been already created and experimented with by the rest of humanity, which by and large is not made of lower animals than physicists."

Harold A. Papazian
Littleton, Colorado

PENSEE Journal III

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