Peer review bites back

There’s just one more week of ‘freedom’ before the teaching deluge starts next Monday. As many people have pointed out to me, this is really, really late in the year, and I must have enjoyed a really long summer holiday with nothing to do. I wish. Not being semester time doesn’t mean that an academic spends all day at the beach.

One of the things I’ve been racing through this summer is finishing a piece of research and associated journal article.  It was submitted recently to a very well-renowned journal, and today I got the feedback on it from the reviewers.

Firstly, I should point out that this is a journal where the editor, or a sub-editor, sifts the articles received for significance and relevance, before sending out to reviewers. So a good percentage never get to ‘review’. The fact that this piece of work got through this first stage already is some positive feedback on it.

The article went to three reviewers. The first, broadly speaking, liked it, and raised just a few minor points. The second has come back with various awkward but reasonable questions, and its clear he or she hasn’t yet filed it in that small cylindrical filing cabinet that inhabits the corner of every room. Unfortunately, however, the third one indicates that it is worth its weight in Greek government bonds (Not exactly the words used, but that’s the basic impression given.)

Hmm. Such a mixed combination of good and bad in a review isn’t actually all that unusual. It’s part of doing science. Other people look at your work, ask you awkward questions; you then address these with the result that the finished article is better and the work is more robust. It doesn’t guarantee that it is correct, but it does ensure that it is of quality. I’ve clearly got a bit of work to do, and I don’t think I’ve got time before the students arrive back (which may mean it has to wait till Easter) but that’s what doing science involves. So although peer review can be brutal, and my first reaction is to despair, it won’t be my final reaction. I like to think that peer-review is to science what democracy is to politics – the worst possible way of doing things except for all the others.




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