Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Peer Review is still worth it (mostly)

In the last month I've had two reviews back on papers that I'd submitted to journals.  And they've been very different experiences.

The response to the first paper really knocked my confidence.  Reviewer two was happy with it to be published basically as is (a few minor corrections etc.). The other reviewer loathed it, and didn't mind saying so. They hated everything about it, the premise, the methods, the conclusions.  It basically came down to the fact that they thought that pretty much everything I've every done was massively flawed.

And it really knocked my confidence. I'm pretty certain it was from someone who is very established (although I don't have a name, and I don't really want to know even though I could then exclude them from being a reviewer in the future) and from someone who works on similar problems but has a different favoured angle.

I have eventually come back around to the idea that it's just one reviewer, and if you're doing interesting work, there's probably always going to be someone who doesn't like it. On a different run I could have had a different set of reviewers and a very different outcome.  And that's one of the main problems with peer review. When you're only asking a couple of people what they think, you're almost certain to get a different response to what you'd get when you asked another two people.

Apart from with the review I got back yesterday, I didn't. And it rather restored my faith in pre-publication peer review. Both reviewers gave us very similar notes, they weren't delivered in a demeaning way, they weren't personal attacks and they will definitely help improve the manuscript. So sometimes, pre-publication peer review really works.

I've heard noises around the internet about the abolishment of pre-publication peer review (not that I think that'll ever happen), but I'm still of the opinion that in general it helps make a manuscript better. And that bad reviewer of mine had every write to express their hatred of my work, although they probably could have phrased it in a slightly less soul crushing way.

I also, though, think that the increase in post-publication peer review is a great thing.  Papers often slip the net with big mistakes because the reviewers weren't the right people to spot those mistakes (you can't be an expert at everything) and the scientific consensus on a paper can be very different to that of a couple of people.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is twitter an academic pandora's box?

In the first week of my masters course, prior to starting my Phd, I had a conversation with someone about how I wanted to be a lecturer.  It hadn't crossed my mind that I might not make it, and since the other participant in the conversation had a lot more experience than me (she'd worked as a research assistant for ~ 10 years), she basically decided I was an arrogant idiot.

(n.b. I was quickly forgiven for being an arrogant idiot and we became good friends)

I did not really take anything much away from this conversation.  I continued my career as I'd planned, and it wasn't until I was applying for jobs toward the end of my second postdoc that I started to find it hard.  But I was still plugging away, pretty certain I'd get there in the end.

Recently (I mean literally the last month), it's all started to get a bit much. And I'm going to lay this squarely at this feet of one culprit. Twitter.

Don't get me wrong, I love twitter, I love the way it allows us to communicate our passions and to connect with the world in a way that was just not possible 10 years ago.  But if I were not able to connect with the world in this way, I could continue in ignorance and maybe I'd get lucky and make it.  But I know the odds are against me now, Pandora's box is open and there's no way back.

Some recent things I've found out about through twitter that are getting me down (in no particular order):

  • Early Career (and not so early career) Researchers trying to encourage publishers to follow an open access pathway with clear reasoning, which was totally ignored and dismissed by the publishers here and here.
  • The fact that the President of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology thinks most of us are riffraff.
  • Being able to directly see how unlikely it is that I'll ever get a job as a PI, and the fact that I'd have a 12% better chance if I were a guy.
  • Talking to people about how academia still has a diversity problem (Follow #diversityjc on twitter to talk more about this)  Conferences in particular have a problem where they only get white male speakers. And many of them don't seem to think this is worrying.
  • The fact that academic freedom seems to slowly be being worn away.
  • The culture of being mean to each other seems to be rewarded far more than does helpfulness and supportive behaviour

For the last 10 years, I have loved working in academia. I felt at home here. I loved the opportunity to research interesting topics and to follow where that research took me, but after it took me to America, 3000 miles away from my family, I started to wonder if I might need more than academia is prepared to give me.

I haven't totally given up yet, but I need to find a way of getting a healthier relationship with this career and I'm not sure I can ever go back to the happy naive state I once had.