Curiosity Killed the Dog
The peer review process of approving animal research
Peer review, with respect to basic research, is a twin process. It occurs prior to an animal experiment taking place and, once again, subsequent to the data being obtained from the animal research.
The initial peer review is undertaken by Home Office officials and by a local ethical review committee the latter, at the institution where the research takes place. The task of these two bodies is to examine the research proposal and decide whether to approve it. Assuming the proposal is approved, a subsequent review process will be undertaken by an editorial board, after the study has been carried out. At this point, the results of the completed research are assessed with respect to publication in a scientific journal.
Based on the above, one might be tempted to conclude that all animal research is conducted and monitored to very high welfare standards. Alas, this is not the case. Leaked documents and undercover video footage have revealed horrific animal suffering and researcher incompetence, which Home Office inspectors failed to detect (2).
Critique of the peer review process
It follows that the peer review process that takes place within the research institution, as well as the subsequent Home Office 'cost-benefit analysis' aimed at quantifying animal suffering, should both be open to public scrutiny. In practice, however, this is rarely, if ever, the case. Institutional ethical committees do not contain public representatives, and certainly would not host a scientist with an opposing view.
Leading medical journalists, including the editor of the British Medical Journal, have gone on record as saying that 'Peer review is a very flawed practice... and prone to abuse and bias. Much of the time it doesn't pick up errors' (3). It can also be observed that the peer review community is an elite group who, researchers will acknowledge in private, are not above looking favourably upon a colleague, on the one hand and being unhelpful to a researcher with whom they have had a scientific or personal dispute.
There are certainly more objective ways of assessing animal research than the current peer review system.
One such method is 'citation analysis' the process whereby the impact or 'quality' of a piece of science is assessed by counting the number of times other scientists mention it in their work (4). This is particularly suited to animal experimentation in basic research, since the justification for such animal studies invariably points to human benefit.
A recently published study on applications of biomedical research involving animal models makes a compelling case for using citation analysis in the peer review process. The authors of this study investigated the frequency of citations of the animal research in clinical (human) publications. The outcome was unambiguous.
Less than 10 per cent of all citations in the clinical publications contained references to the animal research. More significantly, only in two publications could a direct correlation between the results from animal experiments and observations in humans be noted. However, even in these two cases, the hypotheses that had been verified successfully in the animal experiment failed to yield any clinical advance (5).
The acquisition of knowledge for its own sake does not justify inflicting pain and suffering on sentient creatures.
The animal research described above and in the case history is, in our view, not about science or helping human beings through rational research. It is about the search for grants, academic prestige and career development.
The Home Office (Animals Scientific Procedures Division) must clearly take a large share of the blame for reinforcing deficient systems of vetting and oversight, and thereby allowing repetitive research of unproven scientific merit to gain its seal of approval. Indeed, the Home Office has gone on record as saying that peer review and support of animal research by a reputable funding body 'cannot be taken to guarantee the relevance, importance, or scientific validity of any individual experiment or publication' (6).
Finally the charitable organisations that fund animal research urgently need to review their grant-awarding criteria.
- Home Office letter to Animal Aid, dated 10 August, 2005.
- Animal experiments: bad ethics, bad science, page 5 (www.animalaid.org.uk)
- 'A question of ethics' The Guardian, 30 June, 2005.
- Lindl T et al. ALTEX 18, 171-178, 2001.
- Home Office letter to Animal Aid, dated 30 August, 2005.