Peer review, like democracy, is perhaps the worst method, except for all the others.

Whenever an article is sent to a scientific journal, there is a sense of judgment, someone will read my article and will determine its fate (and mine): to be published :), or not to be published :(.

Why judge at all? Why not publish every article that is submitted? Indeed there are web-based journals that do not utilize peer review (or any other type of control), and publish every article that is submitted to them for a fee. This is problematic beyond words. I will just share this funny-but-sad anecdote.

I hope you will agree with me, that someone should check an article before it is published in a scientific journal. If so, who? The journal editor is one person, with a limited capacity and defined expertise. Thus, peer- review meets the need for a group of people who have a large enough capacity and wide enough range of expertise to assist the journal in making these decisions.

In its ideal form, peer review should be a system in which a group of scientists, with a high level of knowledge relevant to the research in question, read the article carefully, attempt to verify some of the results and exercise impartial discretion in deciding to publish only the most worthy articles.

The reality is far more complex. Journals have difficulties maintaining relationships with many experts in a large variety of fields, so many times they end up sending each article to only 2 reviewers, at times with remotely related expertise. There are reviewers who agree to review, but allocate the task to a subordinate with very rudimentary relevant knowledge.

Like all of you, reviewers are very busy and critically appraising other people's work is almost always at a low priority. Reviewers spend a short condensed time reviewing or worse, read articles sporadically, a minute here and a minute there, and in the mishmash of distractions purport to formulate balanced and thorough opinions.

There is no real expectation that a reviewer try to repeat experiments. This can partially account for cases of publishing fake results, such as this recent highly-publicized controversy.

Although all of us engage in science due to some level of idealism, what level of saint would you have to be to approve the publication of an article by a colleague that you do not like? How about a competitor who you would allow to scoop you by your mere approval?

The complex array of pressures under which reviewers operate undermines the assumption that article-reviews are completely impartial. Not to mention the “delightful” personality traits revealed when reviewers are concealed behind a veil of anonymity.

So what to do?

In future posts I will give you tips on how to convey the main messages of your research to readers who are not experts, and who dedicate little time and attention to the reading.

Unfortunately, I can not help you deal with colleagues who do not like you or with your staunch competitors.


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