Are reviewpapers as good as we think?


I read a newstext from Swedish Radio today. It was about underwater noise and I read the news with interest. It was a standard journalist reportage interviewing a marine biologist on a new scientific paper and to get a Swedish pitch on the scientific news.

The scientific paper was about underwater noise and it was a review paper. The ”review” means, as it clearly says, that the paper is reviewing the present status of a research field. Of course it can be a non-academic review as well, but my interest are in the academic/scientific ones since they affect our society’s present view of many topics.

Reviews can summarise major advances in established fields or summarise what is known in a new field.

But anyhow, why am I criticising the art of review-writing now?

Two harbour seals on a small islet outside Lysekil, Sweden. The observation that awoke my interest in the review paper is that marine mammals in this area are thriving and are increasing their population – even if the area are heavily affected by underwater noise.

The epiphany is ”Hey, how am I going to relate to this enormous chunk of literature cited and summarised?” Can anyone do it? I can’t even try to have an intellectual talk about it since the authors, 25 authors in all, are citing 140 references without feeling the strong peer pressure to read the literature they are citing. And that is out of the question 🙂

But what happens if the authors are biased? No, I am NOT saying that they are. I am only saying that they might be biased. What happens is, that it is very hard for a competent peer scientist to point at a potential flaw in the reasoning. If the scientific criticism is wright or wrong is not important – it will be very hard for anyone to win the argument since the review is so massively overdone. Then the standard critical scientific discussion will be unbalanced in favour for the heavy-writers. Most possibly their paper will be widely acknowledged and no balancing voices will be heard.

It was evident in the newstext:

-” This paper comes with proof, a large and overwhelming proof that underwater noise affects the life in the sea” says marine biologist NN at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. (translated from Swedish).

Yes. But what if they are wrong?

Good science is open for criticism – it is fundamental. Review papers are hard to criticise but are extremely easy to cite as proofs by media and politicians.