Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Peer review - enough with author-blind comments.

I want  to diverge from the normal content of THE DAILY PLANT for a post on a different subject - peer review.

First a disclaimer: I am an Associate Editor of Plant Molecular Biology, and on the Editorial Boards of several other journals, all of which work on the classic model of peer review. I have published over 50 articles following peer review, and got to where I am academically thanks to peer review.

THAT BEING SAID, I too have come to the conclusion that something is majorly wrong with the current state of peer review.

What many people may not be aware of is that not only are reviewers anonymous in giving the author critiques of the manuscript (and rightly so perhaps), they can ding a manuscript by comments to the editor that the author never sees!

Case in point, I got the following email recently:
Your manuscript entitled "Biochemical and Biophysical Studies of (bla bla)" was reviewed by the Editorial Board. Unfortunately, the manuscript was found to be unacceptable for publication in the Journal of Good but not Top Science in its current form. The reviewers felt the work is of interest. There were some specific concerns with the manuscript, however, including the lack of specific data elements and the absence of functional supporting data. The deficiencies noted by the reviewers are sufficient to preclude acceptance of the manuscript. However, we encourage you to address the concerns, provide additional data, and submit a revised manuscript to the Journal. 

Both reviewers basically asked for the same things about five changes in the figures, all concerned with presentation of controls. All valid critiques.

So why was the manuscript rejected? Because of, according to the Editor's letter, "the absence of functional supporting data". But none of the reviews supplied to us asked for this! We therfore wrote the editor the following query:
It would be most helpful if you could clarify a clause in your email over which we are puzzling. You wrote "There were some specific concerns with the manuscript, however, including the lack of specific data elements and the absence of functional supporting data." From the reviewers' comments, we can easily identify the "lack of specific data elements" which we will rectify. However, their comments do not indicate or specify what you meant by "the absence of functional supporting data" in your decision summary. We would be most grateful if you could provide some further explanation so that we do not prepare a revision lacking the requested material, resulting in frustration by all parties. 

The Editor's response:
I will consult with the reviewer who used the term "absence of functional supported data" so that we can clarify exactly what was meant. I will get back to you after that. 
In other words, the Editor had no idea why he was rejecting the manuscript, likely had not read the entire manuscript, and was apparently basing his decision on an author-blinded general comment to the Editor!

What is the role of anonymous peer review if a reviewer can use top-secret comments to the Editor to kill a manuscript, without ever having to justify this to the authors? If the reviewer (and we don't know if it was #1 or #2) had criticisms of our science, we have the right to read them - that's what review is, and we also have the right to argue a rebuttal. But author-blind comments are just another form of reviewer tyranny, giving anonymous reviewers undue licence to critique without being held responsible by the author. I call on all journals, including the ones I'm involved with, to cancel the option of author-blind comments so that authors can at least be presented with all the criticism of their work.

The postcript of this is, that it took the Editor two weeks to get an answer for us as to what "functional supported data" is, at least what it is according to the reviewer. Now presented with the critique, we can decide which experiments to do, rebutt the critique, or send the manuscript elsewhere. (We've opted for a mixture of options 1 and 2).

And I feel better having ventilated!

No comments:

Post a Comment