Let’s talk about standards for scholarly opinion articles

I’ve written a lot of posts here about how frustrating it is to try and publish conceptual or expert opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals. Most journals have very few standards for this article category, and peer reviewers often don’t seem to have the guidance to know how to review them fairly.

Note, I’m not talking about popular media opinion pieces in the general definition.

I’m talking about the peer reviewed articles that many journals publish in various ‘non-data’ categories, depending on the journal, often called e.g. Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay etc. They are a separate category to standard research data papers or formal literature reviews. The journals that publish these articles generally only provide vague instructions, which may contribute to the confusion over how to review them.

The general idea is that these type of articles contribute to a scholarly forum that presents evidence-based expert opinions and new ideas on a topical issue, without the requirement for presenting new data (as per standard research articles). They should promote constructive discussion, propose new hypotheses, or encourage new ways of thinking, but they must be based on existing evidence from relevant disciplines.

They are not a forum for throwing out non-evidence-based opinions that may mislead, offend or harm people.

So the role of the peer reviewer is not to good-naturedly accept any opinion they don’t really know much about, or to reject a valid or progressive idea simply because they don’t agree or because it has no data (or not the data one prefers) presented. Peer reviewers of these ‘opinion’ articles are there to prevent offensive, defamatory, harmful, or just plain wrong assessments of a topic getting published (and potentially cited) under the guise of rigorous peer-reviewed scholarly discourse.

But from my experience as an author, an editor, a fellow peer reviewer, and a peer reader, it seems like reasonable evidence-based ‘opinions’ often get rejected because they ‘don’t include data’ or ‘don’t do a meta-analysis’ (seriously, I and colleagues have had this unreasonable reason for rejection so many times on ‘opinion’ articles, it’s become my bugbear); and inaccurate, inappropriate, or offensive non-evidence-based ‘opinions’ get inexplicably published in reputable journals, sometimes with ensuing uncritical online media coverage.

For the record, lots of evidence-based thoughtful opinions do get reviewed fairly and reasonably and get published and cited as they should. And yes dodgy articles also get published regularly, it’s impossible to stop this (but consider the media coverage). That’s not the point of this post.

However, anecdotally, I’ve noticed lots of dubious opinion-based articles getting published recently. Coupled with my experience as an editor (finding it increasingly very hard to find qualified reviewers who will accept review invitations), and my experience as a reviewer (increasingly getting review invitations from legitimate journals for papers absolutely outside my field of expertise – fyi I don’t accept them), maybe the peer review/editorial system is suffering from stressors more than usual. This is a post for another day. And absolutely no it’s not evidence that preprints are the answer, or that we should delete peer review – the peer review system is vital to rigorous science.

Back to the main point of this post. Why are there so few standards for opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals?

It should be a thing – as is standard with data papers, authors and reviewers of opinion articles should know what journals expect in terms of rigour, data, citations, etc.

This has been on my mind again recently, as I’ve seen defamatory (including against myself and colleagues) and inaccurate (including ones I’ve peer reviewed and highlighted major scientific errors in) opinion pieces published in reputable journals. Over the same timeframe, one of my current collaborative ‘opinion’ articles is still seeking a peer reviewed home, after multiple unreasonable rejections (because “MORE DATA AND WHERE’S THE META-ANALYSIS”)…and it is now potentially outdated. We first submitted this paper nearly 12 months ago, which was an appropriate time to present a systematic review of how bushfires affect invertebrates in Australia (spoiler: we don’t know enough to make assumptions). Hope to see it published very soon.

But this is a problem beyond my personal experiences. So please, let’s have an evidence-based discussion about how we review and publish expert peer-reviewed conceptual and opinion articles. These type of articles are a valuable contribution to a discipline’s evolution, and should be treated as such.

© Manu Saunders 2021

16 thoughts on “Let’s talk about standards for scholarly opinion articles

  1. Marco Mello February 24, 2021 / 11:20 PM

    Very nice post, thanks for sharing your experience. I totally agree with you: there are actually no standards for opinion articles. And I’m not talking about universally accepted standards. Publication of those pieces is inconsistent event within a particular journal.

    My personal opinion is that sections like “Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay, Digression, Vanity etc.” are reserved for people with a “speculation credit”. In other words, scientists who are recognized as big shots or silverbacks. They have such a huge influence on their fields that they can publish whatever they want. Nevertheless, if you are an early- or mid-career scientist, who is not a “golden person”, you have to put in an Herculean effort to make event tiny statements without presenting your own data or at least meta-analyses, the new fashion.

    That is one reason why thought-provoking speculations and broader philosophical debates slowly moved to blogs in the 21st century. A side effect of this cultural change is the death of debate in academic journals, which become more and more boring, repetitive and conservative. Yes, science is mainly about evidence. But science was born from philosophy, so free debate is a crucial part of our culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jeffollerton February 25, 2021 / 11:32 PM

      That’s an interesting perspective re “silverbacks”, Marco, but I don’t think it’s always been the case. When the Waser et al. (1996) Generalization in pollination systems paper was published in Ecology, Nick & Mary were mid-career, whereas Lars, Neal and myself were postdocs, of which I was the professionally youngest – I was not last author because of seniority, but because I contributed the least!

      The reason it was published was because Ecology had set up a new section for these kind of perspective pieces and ours was the first to be published. Likewise several of my other early papers were forum-style opinion pieces, sometimes with no data at all…

      The issue now, it seems to me, is that it’s harder to publish anything at all, regardless of the type of paper. Although the number of journals has increased, it’s not increased in proportion to the number of people doing publishable science.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marco Mello February 26, 2021 / 12:07 AM

        Hi, Jeff! Thanks for sharing your personal experience.

        Yes, silverbacks being the only people with speculation credit is not always the case. But, unfortunately, they indeed publish this kind of paper much more easily than ECRs and MCRs. I’ve also published some opinion pieces myself, when I was an ECR, but only in regional journals.

        And, yes, it’s getting harder to publish anything in the currently crowded academic market, stressed by a scientometric cult. Couldn’t agree more. This insane level of competition is making academia more and more an unhealthy place.

        Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases of opinion pieces published by people with a speculation credit, which caused damage. Some of them even started zombie ideas or misdirected entire fields in other ways. I won’t give any examples, because I don’t want to discuss people, but phenomena.

        Nowadays, I prefer to discuss crazy, innovative, bold ideas in the blogosphere and social media. And, of course, in academic meetings and visits. And I share my professional experience, reflections, and academic tales with younger colleagues mainly on blogs and seminars.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Mebane February 25, 2021 / 6:59 AM

    It seems to me that in this post you have the bones of a scholarly opinion article on writing scholarly opinion articles. . But I do think it would benefit from some more detailed anecdata. Looking through your Google Scholar profile, you’ve had success publishing these sorts of concept/opinion papers. What were the pushbacks and delays from? Opposed reviewers? Opposed or indifferent editors? Silverback privilege? Criticisms of balance or fair treatment of opposing views? Could you pull examples of timelines and review criticisms of articles that were ultimately published that you considered inappropriate? How were you or others defamed? Inaccurate or out of context criticisms of your opinion pieces rather than criticisms of your science? Were you allowed to respond with corrections? Granted naming names and calling out specific instances can reignite past conflict, but it adds substance. It gets to your main theme – to what extent do published opinion pieces need to be documented to be fact based? To me, opinion/concept papers should get more leeway than original science papers, and grounded speculation should be allowed. But to be persuasive, they still need to be data/fact based to some extent.

    Some journals/editors seem fundamentally opposed to letters criticizing papers published in their journals and will simply ignore them, other welcome informed, respectful debates. I wonder if original opinion/conceptual articles would be treated similarly. Seems like good ones generate good citation numbers, which sadly, I think is a main criteria that some EICs/managing editors look to.

    I don’t swim in your scientific lanes, but enjoy your perspectives on publishing, peer review, and the challenges for early-career scientists. Keep on keeping on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders February 25, 2021 / 8:14 AM

      Thanks Chris, great comment. Agree, I’ve never had luck with editors wanting to publish critical responses to already published articles, so I generally don’t bother writing them. I guess people are moving more to critiquing papers on social media and blogs, which is great for immediacy and reach, but a shame that it rewards bad behaviour with the author of the flawed article still getting a publication and citations.

      Like

  3. Jeremy Fox February 25, 2021 / 8:28 AM

    A few years back, a couple of Oikos editors complained that most of the submissions to their Forum section weren’t very good, and talked about what would make them better: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/oik.03107.

    Shameless self-promotion alert: I did a post in response to their paper: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/how-not-to-influence-the-direction-of-your-field/

    I suspect you’ll disagree with one of their suggestions, Manu. They said that a good Forum piece doesn’t merely suggest some new idea/approach/framework, but applies it to empirical data in order to demonstrate that it’s worth pursuing/using.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders February 25, 2021 / 8:45 AM

      Thanks for the great links. I actually 100% agree, good forum/opinions should be evidence-based and include some data, as I say in the blog, but it doesn’t have to be a full experimental dataset as you would present in a standard research paper. Data can be a systematic literatyure synthesis, some pilot data, or re-analysis of some old data in new way etc. Good data makes a more rigorous opinion piece (I always include data in any opinion article I write), but it doesn’t need to be judged at the same standard as a ‘normal’ research data paper. Hence why it’s so frustrating when you’ve presented a rigorous systematic synthesis to back up your argument and are told it’s not good enough because you didn’t do a meta-analysis (not the goal or scope in the first place).

      Like

      • Jeremy Fox February 25, 2021 / 8:48 AM

        Thanks for clarifying, and apologies for misreading your post on my initial read. My bad.

        I agree with you that it’s weird and inappropriate to insist that every review or synthesis of data be a meta-analysis.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeremy Fox February 25, 2021 / 8:46 AM

    One specific kind of opinion paper is “research prioritization” papers. Papers with titles like “10 key questions for the next decade of conservation research” or “A horizon scan of emerging issues in global change biology”. Such papers have no detectable influence on the actual direction of ecological research: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2020.0012.

    Which raises an interesting question: what are the most influential opinion/perspectives papers in ecological history? After all, that’s one way to identify standards for opinion/perspectives papers. The standard could be “how similar is this paper to opinion/perspectives papers that everyone agrees were important and influential”.

    In evolutionary biology, I guess Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrels” paper would be among the most influential opinion/perspective papers. Or at least, influential outside of evolutionary biology. It was much discussed within evolutionary biology, but I’m not sure if it influenced many people as opposed to merely upsetting them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. sleather2012 March 1, 2021 / 6:37 PM

    Great article Manu – I am having similar trouble with an opinion piece that I want to put before a wider audience (not just entomologists who are fully aware of the problem) but so far no luck as the journals I have tried want substantial amounts of data ;-( I suspect that it will appear in Antenna and preach to the already converted

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