Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Advice: give and take?

So, I had a strange experience recently. My advisor is an editor of a journal, and she happened to receive a submission that was right up my alley, so she gave me a paper to review.

This was my first time as an official, stand-alone reviewer. In the past, I have sometimes been asked to give an advisor my opinion on a paper they were reviewing, but they always concocted the actual review that went out to the authors and the editor. But it is becoming more common that postdocs are considered expert enough to review papers and grants. Yes, grants. Apparently it is quite easy to volunteer to be on a study section as a postdoc, so much so that NIH is begging for volunteers at NPA meetings. Amazing! I wonder how many PIs would really want their grants reviewed by postdocs if they knew that was the current system?

So, the day I got this paper I was in the midst of something with my own paper. I think at that point I was pretty sure it would get in, and I was really grateful that the reviewers I had gotten this last time around were actually giving me constructive advice. So I was in a pretty gracious mood, I thought I should give detailed comments that would be helpful, say very clearly what I liked and what I didn't like, and offer concrete suggestions on how to fix things. You know, write the kind of review I would want to get.

As it turned out, the paper needed some work, but I thought it should get in with revisions. Of course that is not an option you can communicate easily, there are some unwritten rules I'm still not clear on in the scientific publishing world. On the one hand, the instructions to reviewers clearly say that you should NOT include your opinion on whether the paper should get in, anywhere in the text of your review. That goes in a different slot. And of course the options are "accept, modify, reject." So I picked modify, knowing full well that I have ethical concerns about communicating anything to the editor that the authors aren't privy to, but hoping she would read my detailed review and see what I was hinting at.

So I was kind of frustrated because this week I got the revised version of the paper, and a copy of the letter that went out with my review. The letter, which was written by the editor, said that the paper was rejected. I was kind of annoyed by this. I'm really very much against this latest trend of rejecting everything the first time around, especially when it's pretty obvious that the people are sincerely going to do their best to use some elbow grease and polish up their paper in the revised version.

And, upon reading the revised paper, I was pretty shocked to discover that these people had taken EVERY SINGLE PIECE of my advice. They fixed EVERYTHING. It was MUCH BETTER. And I felt strangely drunk with power. I had to wonder if they would have taken my advice if they knew the paper was 'accepted with revisions' rather than rejected (which lends the review a certain amount of YOU BETTER DO THIS, OR ELSE .

So here is my thought for the day:

Does it make sense, if most people rarely take my advice in real life, that someone I've never met should be FORCED to take my advice as an anonymous reviewer?

This is a really fucked up system we're using!

So when I re-read my original review, I felt bad because I didn't recall having written such a long and detailed review, and I thought I had worded it carefully so that some things were merely suggestions. You know, things to consider trying, rather than requirements for the paper to get in. But they did every single thing. They had obviously done a lot of work.

Of course, sadly, they had also added an experiment, the results of which had clearly gone over their heads. So I had to say again that it needed to be modified, but I emphasized in my review this time that I thought it only needed revisions to the text. I just hope they get the message that I liked it, whatever the editor says this time around.

Meanwhile, I'm left with yet another piece of evidence that the peer review system MAKES NO SENSE.


At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The standard disclaimer is applied: "democracy is the worst political system possible, except for all the other political systems" . Or something like that. There's a similar one for capitalism too. My advisor made up a similar one for peer-reviewing.


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