Critical Commentary and Review
of Papers in Psychology
Book reviews have been around for a long time, but published reviews of experimental and theoretical papers in psychology are rare. There is one journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that publishes original research and solicited reviews, all at the same time. A few other journals occasionally invite comments on a particularly controversial article (my own articles have elicited a few comments in the admirably open-to-debate Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, for example). And most journals will occasionally publish reviewed comments on already-published papers.
But three things have led me to think there is a need for a journal devoted entirely to post-facto reviews of published original research articles.
First, every published article has been reviewed – by referees, before it is accepted for publication. The reviews for many journals are very thorough, occasionally almost as long as the target article. Nevertheless, every referee knows that the published version often fails to meet some of his objections. What to do? A journal that would publish (anonymously, if he or she wishes to preserve anonymity) a suitably modified version of a referee’s comments would be of much interest to readers of the target article.
Second, many influential articles are surrounded by a penumbra of rumor: Can the results be replicated? Are the arguments sound? Are they original? Are the citations balanced – or selective? and so forth. Failures to replicate rarely find an outlet – especially if the article is in a “high impact” journal, where space for comments is restricted, but the need for comment is greatest.
Third, the climate of science has changed over the past four decades. Now almost all research in psychology – especially in neuroscience-related areas – is federally funded. Forty years ago, a grant was a nice bonus, obtainable with reasonably high probability after a couple of weeks of work. Now a grant is a necessity. Without one (or more), tenure is impossible, promotion unlikely. Writing an application takes months and even with extensive data from “pilot” experiments, “hit rates” are low. The reinforcement schedule has changed imperceptibly from positive reinforcement to shock postponement.
This situation has both good and bad aspects. As the funding base has expanded, more research is being done. But the demand – the pool of researchers, many totally dependent on federal support – has grown even faster. Competition for grants is fierce. A bad result has been a growing reluctance to publicly criticize the work of others. In an environment where high enthusiasm from reviewers is essential if a grant application is to have any chance at all, foolish is the researcher who makes needless enemies. The author you criticize may review your next grant!
Americans have always been less willing to voice criticism than the English, for example (it’s not just your mother who believes “if you can’t say something nice...”). But increased dependence on peer-reviewed grants, and a growing pool of researchers who view science as a career rather than a vocation, means that political caution now plays a much greater role in science than it used to. Since reviewers may remain anonymous if they choose (in the fine trans-Atlantic tradition of The Federalist and Letters of Junius), PsyCrit offers an “out” to critics who are cautious, feel vulnerable, or just wish their ideas to be evaluated independently of their persons.
- John Staddon
- June 28, 2006
I consulted with numerous colleagues before launching PsyCrit. Without their many comments and suggestions (mostly encouraging, sometimes helpfully critical) I would not have dreamed of breaking the mould in this way. So, many, many thanks to all who took the trouble to think about these issues and to respond.