Recently, the former chief of CSIR, Shekhar Mande, made a sensational claim that paid publishing in science has killed the peer review system.
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According to renowned biologist Shekhar Mande, the peer review system – or the examination of academic work by others in the same field – has broken down because authors can simply pay to be published.
The former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said even reputable online publications charge authors substantial fees to publish their scientific discoveries.
According to Mande, just a limited group of editors and peer reviewers were brought in to examine this work for a scientific publication. He added that this put a lot of subjectivity and personal bias into the system.
Mande mentioned the traditional art of peer-reviewing. “Traditionally, the way knowledge advanced was that learned people got together, debated the known current facts… if someone proposed advanced material, this too was debated in a fraternity of very well-known people .”
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He cited the universities of Nalanda and Takshashila in ancient India as examples of peer evaluations, where knowledgeable individuals convened to debate whether to accept a new discovery.
But, according to Mande, the emphasis in the last 100 years has been on printing scientific findings. “A person who has discovered something new, now wants to announce it to the public by sending a written article to a journal,” he continued.
“The journal has either one or a set of editors… out of which, one editor would take a decision on this. And it would be reviewed by two or three peers.
“So what used to be debates among many learned people, is now reduced to opinions of only one or two people. And as we know, human opinions are always subjective.”
When new ideas emerged from India or other lesser-known countries, Mande remarked, the West was slow to accept them.
“So in that sense, the peer review system is broken,” he stated.
Mande stressed that a “complete breakdown” has only lately occurred as a result of the rise of online publishing and the “author-pays” paradigm.
He cited an infamous paper that suggested hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial medication, may help cure Covid. The Lancet journal published it before retracting it later.
Mande said: “That particular paper would not have passed a peer-to-peer review system in any other journal. But what were the arguments for accepting it by a journal like The Lancet? We don’t know.”
He went on to say that many reputable journals throughout the world are constantly retracting papers that were previously published because they were not properly reviewed.
This opinion was recently published in an article in Current Science by Mande.
‘Study science if you are a dreamer’
Science, according to Mande, is for dreamers and individuals who desire to contribute new ideas to knowledge.
“You are best fitted to scientific work if you are driven by the passion of contributing new thoughts to the world,” he stated.
Mande said scientists’ morale needed a boost when he took over as director general of the CSIR in 2018.
“Moreover, the connection with industry has been diminishing,” he remarked, adding that he has been working to restore it.
“An important component of science is continuous advance into new territory. Another is that while doing so, we translate it for the benefit of people,” Mande explained.
He added: “That’s a very, very important aspect of science. When scientists receive financial support from the public, expectations are that scientific discoveries would eventually turn into technologies that would benefit people.”
Is all ok with CSIR stipends?
The scientist also responded to reports that PhD students at CSIR facilities had gone months without receiving fellowships.
“It was a matter of great embarrassment to me when I was director general that the fellowships were not being disbursed on time to many students,” he stated.
He claimed that the many processes including collecting attendance certificates contributed to the monthly stipend delays, but that many of the delays also occurred when students switched universities.
“But the work has now begun on war-footing to resolve such cases. He continued, “I expect most of them will be done by September or October.”