Thursday, June 23, 2016

The worst.

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." - Winston Churchill

As you may already know, I'm currently in a writing phase. I've spent the past few weeks putting together my dissertation, making sure everything is revised and formatted and ready to go. 

It worked out pretty conveniently that the journal I submitted one of my chapters to got back to me with comments from reviewers last week. Their timing was perfect, because now I can incorporate the reviewers' comments into my manuscript along with all the revisions I've already received from co-authors and committee members. It'll be one giant revision sweep. 

The peer review process is something I've always struggled with. Prior to publication, every scientific paper has to be reviewed and critiqued by other impartial scientists, people who know the subject matter well but have no professional or personal connections to the authors. Based on comments from the reviewers, the editor decides whether the paper should be accepted, substantially revised and re-evaluated, or rejected outright. The process is very effective at keeping scientists accountable, catching their mistakes, and improving their work. But it's also one long, obnoxious headache.

Sometimes reviewers are biased or arrogant or rude. They seldom meet deadlines, and they never value your work as much as you do. 

You see, the problem is that reviewers are people. And people are flawed. If scientific papers were handled by one person and one person only, they would also be flawed - and probably biased too. So the solution is to add more people to the mix, so that their various flaws will cancel each other out. 

Peer review is actually a very democratic system, but like democracy, it's also the worst. It's the worst possible way to evaluate scientific papers and determine whether they should be published.

Well, except for every other possible way.

Some humor to lighten the mood: I saw this cartoon outside
someone's office at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
last summer. The caption reads "Most scientists regarded the
new streamlined peer-review process as 'quite an improvement.'"

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