A fairly typical peer review process goes like this*. Author submits their paper to a journal. If it’s suitable to send to review, the handling editor sources a minimum of 2 or 3 relevant independent experts to review the paper. Very few papers are suitable for publication at first submission, so their review comments are returned to the author for consideration. Author revises the paper in response to the comments and resubmits the revised version. If the revisions are very minor and the response appropriate, the editor might make a decision immediately. Otherwise, this revised version is sent back to the original reviewers, who assess whether the authors have addressed the original comments appropriately and potentially pick up any new issues. The editor then makes the decision whether to accept (or reject) the paper or continue with further revisions.
This process can obviously take many months, but is fairly straightforward when it all goes smoothly.
The ‘boycott peer review’ hot takes are reappearing on social media. Long-time readers of my blog may remember my post on why I think boycotting peer review is unreasonable, written the last time this hot take was doing the rounds. In that post I mostly focused on the impacts on the system and the editors, which are important reasons not to boycott peer review.
But refusing to review papers also impacts the authors. This is obvious and should not have to be said, but it seems that it is often forgotten when academics shake their fists at Big Publishing.
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.
Academia may be unique among careers in its lack of standardised processes or training for so many of the common activities that are essential to being an academic. Instead, new researchers have to bumble blindfolded through the dark room of early career researchhood to work out how to literally do the academic parts of their job. Sometimes we’re lucky to have a supervisor, colleague, or mentor who might guide us to a door (but it may not always be the right door).
Publishing and peer review are part of this bumbling process. Publishing our research in peer-reviewed literature is a key part of our job description, to share knowledge with the discipline and beyond.
A few opinion pieces are doing the rounds arguing that scientists should boycott peer review, especially for paywalled journals. The argument goes that this action is a protest against Big Publishing, because peer reviewers should be paid, and because we should support ‘open science’. I genuinely don’t understand this logic.
Peer review is a community service because scholarship is a community endeavour. Peer review is an important part of an academic’s role. Each individual’s service collectively contributes to a rigorous body of scientific knowledge. This is much better than the pre-peer review days of a single editor deciding on publication (this tradition persists in the desk reject).
A community service is generally unpaid – that’s the difference between a service for the good of the system and a business transaction for individual benefit. Do you volunteer for your kid’s sports club? Do you belong to your neighbourhood watch group? Do you contribute to your local conservation or landcare groups?
Why do you volunteer your time? Do you expect payment for these activities? Continue reading
Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).
Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading
I’ve just published my first preprint. If you’re not familiar with preprints, they are final versions of a paper manuscript that are posted online before they have been peer reviewed.
Long-time followers of my blog will know that I am not a huge fan of preprints. Preprints are not the answer to our angst over peer review, because they involve too many risky assumptions.
So why did I just publish one? Continue reading
Scientific disciplines grow from new concepts, ideas, theories and expert opinions, not just data. But conceptual papers are the hardest kind of scientific paper to publish.
Too many researchers…seem to think that any non-empirical paper is simply an essay and devoid of deeper scholarship. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than once I have received comments from reviewers claiming a paper is nothing more than an essay, implying essays are little more than opinions. But aren’t all papers “opinions” in one form or another?
~ Rudy Hirschheim (2008)
By definition, a conceptual paper doesn’t present original data…but it must present an original concept. It synthesises knowledge from previous work on a particular topic, and presents it in a new context to provide a springboard for new research that will fill knowledge gaps.
Conceptual papers shouldn’t follow the status quo; they need to show how moving beyond the current norm will enhance knowledge. Continue reading
A few weeks ago we posted Part I and Part II of some early career perspectives on grant peer review over at Jasmine Janes’ blog. We also ran a survey to find out what other people think, and the results are in!
Read the full details at Jasmine’s blog:
PART III – Peer review of grants: Researcher thoughts on making it better
A scientific paper follows the classic literary plot structure. Each section follows in sequence from the previous sections, so that no individual section (with the exception of the Introduction) can be fully understood without having read the previous ones. If you pick up a novel and read the last page first, you might find out whether Jack dies, but you won’t have any idea who killed him and why. Those details are important.
In terms of understanding the Results and Discussion sections of a paper, the Methods section is critical. Results should never be read as a standalone text. The only way you, the reader, can judge if my results are valid and meaningful is if you know how I collected and analysed the data.
The sexy summary sentence in an empirical paper’s abstract doesn’t necessarily apply to everywhere and everything – there’s a context. Which is why journals that hide the Methods at the end of the paper, or in supplementary material, are doing Science a huge disfavour. Continue reading