OPINION: Is the peer review system failing or economical interests are skewing it?

Published 22 August 2016

Technology platform Biomarkers

Historically, the peer review system is based on “confirmation by development”, i.e. producing novel results based on the previous data. It is only when data come from unique sources (the Large Hadron Collider is one example) that a very high standard of proof is required due to the limitation of access for other scientists. The recent spate of comments from pharmaceutical industry on the lack of reproducibility of biomedical results is out of scope as “Data Revalidation” is a different step from “Discovery”. Such a step was historically devolved to industry not academia as it requires robust and validated methods and models inside a Quality Assurance Program.

The onus for such Data Revalidation in publicly funded projects labeled as “Translational or Innovation-aimed”  should be on the funders / sponsors as part of their due-diligence in the selection / evaluation process as well as part of the cost justification. In fact, it is the absence of clear criteria for the evaluation of the social impact and translational value from the funders that allows, or force, scientist to mislabel their work as Translational and media presenting discovery  studies  as “Breakthrough” for novel therapies.  Especially when applied to clinical studies, important ethical questions are raised by allowing public funds to be spent on  project which cannot be used to improve the patients Quality of Life or Survival due to poor design.

Academia has been the source of a large fraction of the most innovative therapies but asking them to be competitive and patent all their ideas risk to (re)create a  “Trolls under the bridge” culture for the biomedical sciences and stifle translation of discoveries into treatment, increasing cost and delaying implementation.
If we really want to increase the productivity of the academic world , Funders and Industry should join in defining a Pre-competitive area after Discovery supporting robust data revalidation and at the some time a reward track for the academics which is not merely the creation of spin-off and patents.  Such could be the scope for Public-Private funding of the European Research Infrastructures.