Orwell’s principle of Peer Review: all authors are equal in the eyes of the editors but in High Impact Factor journals, some Authors are more equal than others.

It happened again. Talking to someone about things of the trade: papers, publishing in the life sciences actually, happened to mention a piece of work I had just seen in Cell; “did that get published?….” my companion jumped…. “really?……..I rejected that work!….. but well, it is so-and-so and it is Cell…..”.  Indeed; the topic is what they call ‘hot’, the authors are well known in the field and, one presumes, the editors are easily impressed by names, trendy topics and technologies…….who cares about content or rigour: plus ca change…….peer review which for most of us is a complicated and treacherous passage is, in other instances, a formality which has to be dealt with but which the author, sorry THE AUTHOR, can choose to comply with or not because the work will be published anyway. In some rare, but noticeable instances, the decision has been taken before submission.

Difficult to know numbers but I am sure you know stories like this. Contrast them with the many in which the famous third reviewer is used by the editor against you. The letter that would say to one of those privileged Authors “….you will see that reviewer 3 has raised some issues and if you can answer some of them, we shall be happy to consider the paper for publication…” becomes, for many others, “……. you will see that reviewer 3 has raised substantial concerns which preclude us from considering your paper for publication….”. The difference between the two statements is not the manuscript, nor the reviews, probably not the editor either, but the author and that unmeasurable all important quantity: the relationship between the editor and the author. There is little point in denying that this happens. An interesting interview with an editor (“10 things you need to know about the publishing process” (http://elsevierconnect.com/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-the-publishing-process/) makes clear how much influence editors have in decisions and suggests that the important thing, particularly in those journals perceived as ‘influential’, is not the science but the use the data to, in collaboration with reviewers and editors, find a way to ‘tell a story”.

These situations do not make life easy and say much about the times in which we live and work, research in the life sciences, and the way it moves. It could be argued that similar developments are taking place in other areas of Life but the difference is that Science, we are told, is objective, fair, based on facts and quality through well established criteria and procedures. All of these principles (which remain true) have become relative and the journals, rather than the scientists are running the Science and the scientists. The clever thing is that they have engaged us in this game so, we cannot complain but……we can change things.

While Open Acess and the use of Impact Factors (read DORA) are important issues that need addressing (and are being addressed), a thorough revision of the Peer Review is the one issue that can have the more direct impact into our individual efforts to pursue science. At the moment, the process of Peer Review is an ugly tangled web which is not going to be easy to disentangle. Nonetheless we need to try.

Enough whinging. Over the last few weeks on related discussions I have had two suggestions to write some blueprint for ‘my ideal journal’. I am in the process of doing this and, if you are interested, stay tuned; if you have some thoughts, write to me.