“It is not easy to have a paper published in the Lancet, so Wakefield’s paper presumably underwent a stringent process of peer review. As a result, it received a very strong endorsement from the scientific community. This gave a huge impetus to anti-vaccination campaigners and may well have led to hundreds of preventable deaths. By contrast, the two mathematics preprints were not peer reviewed, but that did not stop the correctness or otherwise of their claims being satisfactorily established.
An obvious objection to that last sentence is that the mathematics preprints were in fact peer-reviewed. They may not have been sent to referees by the editor of a journal, but they certainly were carefully scrutinized by peers of the authors. So to avoid any confusion, let me use the phrase “formal peer review” for the kind that is organized by a journal and “informal peer review” for the less official scrutiny that is carried out whenever an academic reads an article and comes to some sort of judgement on it. My aim here is to question whether we need formal peer review. It goes without saying that peer review in some form is essential, but it is much less obvious that it needs to be organized in the way it usually is today, or even that it needs to be organized at all.
What would the world be like without formal peer review? One can get some idea by looking at what the world is already like for many mathematicians. These days, the arXiv is how we disseminate our work, and the arXiv is how we establish priority. A typical pattern is to post a preprint to the arXiv, wait for feedback from other mathematicians who might be interested, post a revised version of the preprint, and send the revised version to a journal. The time between submitting a paper to a journal and its appearing is often a year or two, so by the time it appears in print, it has already been thoroughly assimilated. Furthermore, looking a paper up on the arXiv is much simpler than grappling with most journal websites, so even after publication it is often the arXiv preprint that is read and not the journal’s formatted version. Thus, in mathematics at least, journals have become almost irrelevant: their main purpose is to provide a stamp of approval, and even then one that gives only an imprecise and unreliable indication of how good a paper actually is….
An alternative system would almost certainly not be perfect, but to insist on perfection, given the imperfections of the current system, is nothing but status quo bias. To guard against this, imagine that an alternative system were fully established and see whether you can mount a convincing argument for switching to what we have now, where all the valuable commentary would be hidden away and we would have to pay large sums of money to read each other’s writings. You would be laughed out of court.”