Taking on peer review

Authors may need to take some of the blame for what ails the system

By | February 1, 2006

Late last year, a prominent researcher suggested that ?The Scientist write an exposé of the ?glaring iniquities? in peer review at the leading journals such as Science, Cell, and Nature. His list:

» Months-long delays in authors? receiving reviews, caused by a combination of reviewer fatigue, malicious reviewer delay, and chronic understaffing at journals.

» Professional editorial staff who are too young, inexperienced, overworked, and underqualified, resulting in excessive deference to external reviewers.

» An unseemly scramble by the journals to capture ordinary papers in hot fields while giving short shrift to outstanding research in other areas.

Unfortunately, to these you can add real or perceived intimidation, since this same researcher declined to contribute an essay that would have done much to give evidence for the charges. He feared being blackballed by the journals. Intrigued, if not entirely convinced ? my eight-year stint as a manuscript editor at Science and Nature colored my view ? we put our intrepid news editor, Alison McCook, on the case. The result is her feature on page 26. Her findings may surprise you, beginning with the provocative idea that authors may be submitting too many papers to prestigious journals and putting a real spanner in the works of peer review.

Peer review is a splendid system when it works properly, that is, when a talented editor gets committed, expert reviewers to assess the manuscript of authors who are anxious to have the best possible paper. What can be done to ensure that more interactions are of this, and not the iniquitous sort?

To continue to have the privilege, and benefit, of showcasing the best of science, publishers need to reassert their commitment in terms of finance, infrastructure, and personnel management. Science, Cell, and Nature must invest in adequate staffing, in attracting outstanding manuscript editors, and in monitoring, motivating, and incentivizing their performance. In my experience, publishers discount excellence in manuscript editors.

The editors themselves must develop their craft. More open communication, including signed reviews, and targets for punctuality that are regularly reported upon would be useful first steps. Training of scientists to perform peer review should also be considered. This would involve giving feedback, including examples of best practice, to reviewers. Reviewers should be rewarded, perhaps by the journals, with some form of certification. And authors must become more selective about where they submit their papers.

The highlight of my own career as a manuscript editor was in guiding the publication of the draft human genome in Nature. Two memories stand out. One was phoning my then-colleague, Carina Dennis, from the top deck of a 747 en route from London to San Francisco, one of only two times that I?ve used an airplane phone. Carina was taking the call earlier in the day from the leaders of the five main sequencing centers on their decision on where to submit the manuscript. I knew immediately from the tone of her voice that the paper was bound for Nature. More memorable still was the conference call with the same group when Nature and Science exchanged genome-sequencing papers. There?s just not enough space here to do justice to that.

One thing that everyone associated with those papers shared five years ago was a feeling of history in the making. Five years on, Victor McElheny, who is at work on his third book, a history of the project, takes a cold, hard look at the legacy to date. Has the human genome lived up to its billing? Find out on page 42. There?s of course much more in this issue, including an essay by leading gene therapy researchers Alain Fischer and Marina Cavazzana-Calvo (p. 36). As always, we welcome your post-hoc peer review. Let us know what you think, whether it?s to accept, revise, or reject.

rgallagher@the-scientist.com

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