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November 13, 2011 / jpschimel

Friends don’t let friends publish bullshit: Filtering vs. Polishing and the nature of peer review

Some members of the public distrust the scientific peer review process because they assume we’re likely to go easy on our friends and colleagues. That is based on the pervasive misperception that publication is the end point of science.

Seeing a paper all shiny and typeset is always a thrill, and getting it accepted means it becomes an official part of the “scientific knowledge base,” which is an accomplishment. But being published, even in a credible journal ensures neither success nor citation. For example, in one major biochemistry journal, while the average paper from 2008 was cited 9 times, almost 20% had been cited 3 times or fewer, and more than 20 had still never been cited.

Publication isn’t an ending—it’s a new beginning. You may be done with the paper, but the paper isn’t done with you. After it’s been accepted, you no longer control its fate; rather it controls your fate. If a paper is well received, you gain credit, if it’s overlooked, or worse—seen as flawed—your reputation may even suffer.

Hence the title of this blog post: “Friends don’t let friends publish bullshit.”

Truly, few manuscripts are “bullshit,” but the strong language is to make a point. You don’t serve a friend by letting them slide a paper into print that could be better or clearer. You serve a friend by helping make their work better.

In my entire career, I’ve received only one review that said “accept as is” and in that case, neither the other reviewers nor the editor agreed. In fact, neither did I! And I can only remember once recommending a paper be accepted as submitted.

Science is hard to do and hard to explain. It’s also hard to avoid the Curse of Knowledge where we get so close to our work we become blind to what will confuse readers, and to better ways of presenting data and ideas. Our colleagues may not suffer the same curse.

Peer review does more than just filter out bad work; it polishes the strong work and makes it stronger. For me, that has always been the greatest value of the review system and one that I think is underappreciated.

Remember, getting published is not the ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to create knowledge and understanding that influence how scholars and students think, and that advance our fields of science. We serve our friends by helping them achieve that goal.

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2 Comments

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  1. Chris Schadt / Nov 21 2011 8:34 pm

    Good article and advise!!! Although I must admit I have been known to curse a reviewer or two on occasion!!!

  2. jpschimel / Nov 21 2011 9:36 pm

    Me too! A number of reviews are off-base, fussy, of just wrong. That is when you hope that editors or panels do their job in filtering the crappy reviews.

    And for papers, remembering that reviewers don’t make decisions and that you don’t necessarily need to do everything the suggest or in the way they suggest–but that is the topic for a future column.

    Sometimes though, my kvetches are because the reviewer is pushing me to do something I don’t really want to do even if its good for me. I’ve frequently found myself though, about three days after getting a tough review admitting that “Maybe the miserable good for nothing son-of-a-bitch had a point.”

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