Monday, April 05, 2010

Can one reviewer make a difference?

I am occasionally asked to review manuscripts for a journal in my field that has a storied past, but over the last decade has fallen out of favor. It's impact factor (for what little that's worth) is now down below 2.5. This is not a journal I have ever published in, but I feel compelled to accept an invitation to review every now and then for two reasons. One is that I know a number of people on the editorial board and would like to stay on good terms with them. The other, lesser reason, is more altruistic and likely misguided. In the back of my mind I have this little voice saying that maybe this journal can be restored to its former prominence if submitted manuscripts were reviewed more rigorously. Judging from the dross that is regularly published I would say rigorous review is not a common occurrence at this journal.

I've been quite content to review two or three papers a year for this journal for the above reasons. Until recently. Much to my surprise I was asked to review a revised manuscript that I had rejected. Rejected just two weeks before the revised manuscript was submitted. Rejected for what I believed were fundamental flaws of the kind that make pretty much all of the work described in the manuscript worthless. Turns out neither the other reviewer, nor the editor (someone I don't know) spotted the same flaws or agreed with me. I can deal with that. Perhaps I was wrong - it can happen. So I read the revised manuscript and the authors' cover letter. Turns out the authors didn't think my perceived flaws were a problem. Again, I can deal with that. But here's the thing. The flaws I had identified were related to very, very basic solution thermodynamics. The kind you are taught in general chemistry. Or even high school. Okay, I could be wrong, so I consulted a physical chemistry textbook. Nope, I was right according to that. I asked a colleague*, who interrupted me before I could get half way through my explanation to tell me that the solution thermodynamics couldn't be right. For the same reasons I had identified.

So the authors are misguided wrong deluded idiots. Fine, it happens. Apparently the other reviewer either didn't read the manuscript carefully or is in the same category as the authors. Not so fine, but again, it happens. The editor? Now that's where I have a real issue. It would have taken him no more than 15 minutes to have read my review and checked the original submission to find I was right, leading to rejection of the manuscript. Instead he apparently looked at the two reviewer scores, one reject and one (very) minor revisions and split the difference. Lazy bugger.

So I ask you, what's the point? Apparently my efforts to be more rigorous as a single reviewer are wasted in this case. The reality is a journal cannot raise its standards via a "grassroots" effort on the part of the reviewers. I know that and have done for some time.

The moral here is I have to stop listening to those voices in my head.

Oh, and I rejected the manuscript again. And sent the editor in question a short lesson in basic solution thermodynamics. Perhaps not very tactful, but what do I care? I won't be reviewing for him again.

* Staying within the limits of reviewer/author confidentiality of course.


Odyssey said...

To the reader from
Don't panic. It wasn't one of your publications.

Anonymous said...

Cut the fuckers adrift.

If they aren't interested in basic scientific standards of publication then they deserve to fade into obscurity.


Odyssey said...

Probably true, antipodean. Probably true.