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.

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