Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pet peeves

We all have them - things that drive us nuts. Our pet peeves. I've just experienced one of mine.

I've just read a supposedly revised paper sent to me for evaluation by the editor of an academic journal. I say supposedly because all the author has done is tinkle with a couple of sentences and add a couple of references. The original decision on the paper was a revise and resubmit, which basically means the paper has some merits but it is unpublishable as it is and its needs a substantial rewrite, perhaps including additional analysis.

For the life of me I cannot understand an author who fails to take the advice of an editor and three referees and resubmits the same paper, especially when it's clear that they think the paper needs major surgery for it to be publishable. If the decision the first time round was revise and resubmit, with no substantial changes it will be the second time. All the author has done is waste the time of four people and in my case raise my blood pressure!

I know the author probably thinks the paper is fine and is no doubt frustrated with the original verdict, but having worked as the managing editor of an international journal I know from experience that if all of the referees say the paper needs revising in some way it invariably does. In ten years of overseeing over 1000 papers we never once accepted a paper as it was originally submitted even from the top names in the field. There was always some small way in which the paper could be improved to make a very good paper into an excellent one. In all but a very small number of cases revisions did indeed make the paper stronger (there were some papers that paradoxically got worse, almost always very weak papers to begin with).

The refereeing process is designed to be a constructive process that helps authors publish the best possible piece of work. Authors ignore the advice given at their peril (although not all the advice has to be taken, but it should not be simply dismissed out of hand especially when it is consistent across a number of reviewers). The paper I've just read is now likely to be rejected. If the authors had undertaken the revisions they were requested to do their paper would have been stronger and in all probability accepted for publication, perhaps after some further minor edits. They've wasted my time, the editor's and their own. Cheers.

1 comment:

maxine said...

I agree. That's a frustrating story. Despite many fashionable attacks on the peer-review system, peer-reviewers are the unsung heroes of science, in my opinion.
Your statistics are interesting. After very many years as a Nature editor I have never seen a ms go straight from submission to publication without revision (almost always quite extensive) either. Two or three rounds of peer-review are the norm, sometimes more. It is also interesting that in our "experience" surveys of just-published authors, in which we ask them about various aspects of the process, they overwhelmingly respond that the peer-review process has improved their manuscript, even though it must have seemed pretty painful at the time!