A couple of days ago I checked Twitter and ended up reading a discomforting account of how things can go wrong when publishing a piece of research (or trying to do so) posted on the author’s blog.
To start, I should clarify that I do not work for the publisher that is part of the author’s story, and my post is written with no specific company or journal in mind. I shall express personal thoughts on what I read, and I’d like the accent to fall on “personal”. To reformulate this statement with words familiar to Twitter users, you will find “views [that are] my own” here.
One benefit of reading the author’s post is that it confirmed a feeling that I’ve had for a little while: there is often a (partly) broken link between authors, editors, publishers and readers. The connection can be broken at various points and to different levels of severity; as an unreliable communication between parties takes place, an effect that appears quickly is the propagation of corrupted information – following a phenomenon similar to what happens when playing chinese whispers.
I’m passionate about writing and publishing, and I have a genuine interest in open access. Particularly, I believe that it is important to keep the communication line open with this growing community, and that the worst move that ‘big traditional publishers’ can make is to break the line and leave the room. I read the author’s account in full, and there is little to argue on one point: his experience was dreadful and, one would hope, belongs to the set of rare events. As I read on, some comments on the peer review process caught my attention. The rest of this post focusses on my reactions to specific statements.
“One can only imagine how often this is the case for published papers.” This sentence referred to the peer review process not being rigorous, as it involved a single referee and an overly succinct review. As a general remark, I agree that the review process should provide more detailed feedback. However, to infer that what happened with this submission applies to many published papers that are out there seems far-fetched and, to be fair, not rigorous at all. Since when does one occurrence generate a rule?
“My apologies here to the referee who I imagine did their best” – this comment was a little jaw-dropping, I must say. Did I miss something along the way? I don’t understand why the author apologises to the reviewer here. Is this supposed to suggest that the referee was more or less surreptitiously ill-advised by the editor to write a short and superficial review of the article under consideration? I fail to see on which grounds it seems to be the case here that referees have no autonomous responsibility for the reviews that they provide. As a general observation, I would like to stress this point: the submission of a paper, and the peer review process that can follow, is a three-body interaction – the three ‘bodies’ being the author(s), the editor(s) and the referee(s). They interact with one another, yet each party has its independence. If this is not the case there is a problem, but that is a different question. Unless the author has evidence for this being the issue here, I have trouble figuring out why he feels compelled to apologise to the reviewer.
“this is a problem when you have a closed, anonymous system, in which editorial decisions are based often on incomplete information.” ‘Anonymous’ does not imply ‘closed’, a priori – perhaps “not transparent” should replace “closed”? This choice would make more sense to me. Indeed, one can argue that the peer review process is not always transparent. In fact, this important aspect has sparked stimulating discussions and valuable ‘experiments’ carried out by some journals – such as publishing the referee reports along with the original research papers, or acknowledging editor(s) and referee(s) explicitly when an article is published. This is all good and part of a (mostly) constructive debate. Yet I lose track of the logic behind the words when I read that “editorial decisions are based often on incomplete information” as if this was a shocking revelation. How do we define what complete and incomplete information with respect to the peer review process is? When is any decision – any! – based on a truly complete picture of the considered problem? I was under the impression that this was part of our evolution – learning to take decisions based on incomplete measurements. You collect a bunch of data, elaborate an interpretation and make up your mind – sometimes you’ll be right, sometimes you’ll be proved wrong. This is what life is about, and also what science is about. Is the discussion around a research paper – sometimes in the form of peer review – any different? I don’t think so.
I hope that my comments are not misinterpreted; the overall experience that the author reported must have been frustrating, to say the least, and none of what I wrote is meant to deny that. Rather, my post is a first and coarse attempt at restoring bits of a broken link, if possible. Of course, I’d like any replies to match the tone of my post: I’m happy for my views to be challenged, as long as the discussion remains civil.