Saturday, March 17, 2007

Peer reviewing

Scientific publishing is a tricky matter. Different of other ways to publish thoughts (e.g. Blogs :-)), quality and seriousness must be assured before publication and supposedly based on objective criteria. A keystone of this process is the peer reviewing, adopted by most of the science magazines. To the ones who are not familiar with this, a manuscript submitted to a magazine is handled by an editor, who assigns one (and sometimes more than one) anonymous researcher worldwide, named the referee, to give and opinion about the quality and seriousness of the work. Usually the referee has veto power concerning the publication of the submitted magazine.

This process has the advantage of avoiding the publication of bad manuscripts, without producing bad feelings in the science community. Usually it works fine, but being myself author of several manuscripts and of referee reports about other authors' manuscripts, I detected several common 'errors' of the peer reviewing process, which I will list below. My intent is not blaming someone, I did myself most of these errors. I just want to start a discussion about this matter, which I consider quite important in the actual scientific world.

Peer review 'errors':

  1. Most referees (specially from English speaking countries) confuse their tasks with the one of a spellchecker, pointing at interminable lists of spell and grammar errors in the manuscript. Many times this is quite useful for other authors like me, who do not come from English speaking countries, but this should not be the main concern of a referee. He (she) should simply refuse a badly written manuscript or require more spellchecking before publication. I also observed that some referees point 'errors' which are actually a matter of writing stile. The author of the manuscript should be allowed to write his manuscript using his (her) own stile, provided it conforms with the standard of the language.
  2. Most referees fall under a strong temptation: finding something, at any cost, to criticize in the manuscript. It should be possible to find some submitted manuscript which is already ready for publication without interference of the referee. A good referee should admit this possibility before reading the manuscript and I am not meaning only those written by famous authors.
  3. When requiring mandatory changes in the manuscript, the referee should consider if what he (she) is requiring is feasible. I received reports about my own manuscripts requiring absurd providences which actually would inviabilize its publication. Usually withdrawing the submission and resubmitting to another magazine 'solves' the problem (simply due to the change of the referee).
  4. As there are good 'a priori' manuscripts, there are also bad ones. A referee should not fall under the temptation of accepting the manuscript at any cost, fearing to hurt the feelings of the author. One should, however, take care of not confusing his (her) opinion about what is wrong or right (specially what is or what is not modern) in science with the scientific value of the manuscript itself. This issue should be moderated by the editor , who should not restrict his (her) task concerning to a manuscript to forwarding it to the referee.
I believe this covers most of the problems in the peer review process, but, of course, I may have forgotten something. I would be very happy to hear your thoughts about this.

Cláudio G. Schön
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