‘Be con­struc­tive but un­vary­ingly suc­cinct’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - SPORT - Rus­sell Foster is chair of cir­ca­dian neu­ro­science at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford.

Be­fore writ­ing this piece, I con­sulted widely with col­leagues about why they un­der­take peer re­view. The an­swers were pretty much as I ex­pected. Se­nior col­leagues feel that it is an es­sen­tial re­quire­ment of be­ing a sci­en­tist to en­gage in the process – “a moral obli­ga­tion”, as one put it. Many spend a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time at the week­end or in the evenings re­view­ing, since it is “a duty above and beyond the day job”.

They are cer­tainly aware of the flaws of peer re­view – un­con­scious bias, con­flicts of in­ter­est, per­sonal loathing, lack of spe­cial­ist knowl­edge, ig­no­rance, not be­ing fully up to date on the topic, and so on. De­spite all this, my col­leagues still see peer re­view as the “gold stan­dard of science”. One – and he is by no means the first to do so – para­phrased Churchill’s thoughts on democ­racy: “Peer re­view is the worst form of as­sess­ment ex­cept for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In­ter­est­ingly, my ju­nior col­leagues are more prag­matic. I quote di­rectly from one suc­cinct col­league: “I re­view be­cause it is the only way to pre­vent crap from be­ing pub­lished that I would then have to wade through be­fore I [can] get my own work pub­lished.” Early ca­reer sci­en­tists are also much more se­lec­tive in what they will re­view, choos­ing manuscripts from the top jour­nals and only in fields of di­rect rel­e­vance, with the pri­mary aim of “find­ing out what is go­ing on”. An­other dif­fer­ence be­tween se­nior and ju­nior col­leagues is that the lat­ter are much more likely to take re­jec­tion per­son­ally, and to get upset. Whether this is be­cause age re­sults in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wis­dom, the de­nuda­tion of the emo­tions or the ac­qui­si­tion of al­ter­na­tive forms of grat­i­fi­ca­tion re­mains un­clear to me.

Henry Olden­burg, the found­ing edi­tor of The Philo­soph­i­cal Trans­ac­tions of the Royal So­ci­ety of Lon­don, is cred­ited with in­vent­ing pre-pub­li­ca­tion peer re­view in 1665. By the 1830s, all Royal So­ci­ety pub­li­ca­tions were sub­ject to some form of ex­ter­nal peer re­view. How­ever, it was not un­til the mid-20th cen­tury that ref­er­ee­ing be­came the norm for most jour­nals; in­deed, Na­ture in­sti­tuted for­mal peer re­view only in 1967; pre­vi­ously, ed­i­tors had re­lied on their own ex­per­tise, sup­ple­mented with in­ter­nal dis­cus­sion.

But ed­i­tors re­tain im­mense power. They de­cide whether a man­u­script should be sent for peer re­view, to whom the man­u­script will be sent, and whether the re­view­ers’ ad­vice is acted upon or ig­nored. A se­nior col­league makes the point that “the key thing about get­ting a pa­per pub­lished these days is to make the ab­stract suf­fi­ciently id­iot proof to get the [sec­tion] edi­tor to send it out for peer re­view”. And while my col­leagues ex­press frus­tra­tion with ref­er­ees, there is a grudg­ing trust that, on bal­ance, they do a good job. By con­trast, there is lit­tle faith in ed­i­tors’ abil­ity to act as qual­i­fied “gate­keep­ers” of pub­lished science.

In my own case, I am some­times frus­trated by the manuscripts I am asked to re­view. Lack of nov­elty, un­clear lan­guage, un­spec­i­fied method­olog­i­cal de­tails, weak ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign, mud­dled statis­tics and ob­scure data pre­sen­ta­tion can all elicit this re­sponse. If the man­u­script’s con­clu­sions are faith-based and not data-based, I also get very dis­ap­pointed, re­sent­ing that my evening’s work has not taught me some­thing new. And I get es­pe­cially ir­ri­tated when im­por­tant data are de­lib­er­ately buried in the sup­ple­men­tary data sec­tion, or when there are ob­vi­ous tech­ni­cal mis­takes. I once re­viewed a mouse pa­per that re­ported lev­els of a hor­mone that a mouse is ge­net­i­cally in­ca­pable of mak­ing – that ex­pe­ri­ence re­quired a very large, calm­ing whisky.

My re­sponses in such cases are, hope­fully, al­ways con­struc­tive but are un­vary­ingly suc­cinct – per­haps even blunt. And I don’t re­ally dis­crim­i­nate be­tween “top” and “main­stream” jour­nals. Good science is good science.

But on the rare oc­ca­sions when the work is truly novel and bril­liantly de­signed, I am trans­ported to a new plane of hap­pi­ness, and I gush shame­fully in my writ­ten re­sponse, even if a few more ex­per­i­ments or tweaks are re­quired. I might even ad­mit coyly, in con­ver­sa­tion with the au­thor, that I was a ref­eree!

Shortly after my elec­tion to one of the UK’s na­tional academies, I joined its elec­tion com­mit­tee. I wit­nessed for the first time the mul­ti­ple lay­ers of peer re­view that even­tu­ally lead to the ap­point­ment of a new fel­low. In view of the in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, scru­tiny and de­tailed dis­cus­sion, I re­marked to an­other com­mit­tee mem­ber that I won­dered how the bloody hell I had ever been elected. The in­di­vid­ual turned his head, and with a com­plete ab­sence of hu­mour, an­swered: “Well, in my case, I won­dered why it had taken so long”.

On bal­ance, peer re­view is an in­valu­able force for good, but it clearly does not select for hu­mil­ity!

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