There are things making you to feel old. To realize that you got your driving license 20 years ago, for example, or to have a child. If you are a scientist, this feeling will arise the first time they will ask you to be the reviewer for a research paper.
How scientific journals work
If you know how a scientific journal works, just jump over this section.
Scientific journals work like this: a researcher (or a group of researchers) conducts an experiment, or maybe elaborates a new theory, then one of the authors writes a manuscript with their results and submit it to a journal. There, an editor gives a first look to the manuscript and see if it is worth investigating further or not. (For example, if a piece of work on chemistry is submitted to a journal publishing philological studies, most likely it will be sent back to the author, without further evaluation!)
If the editor feels that the manuscript is pertinent to the scope of the journal, s/he will forward it to one, two, even three scientists experts on the field. These scientists are called “reviewers”, and since in science there are no authorities, but all those having a Ph.D. are “peers”, this process is called “peer-review”.
Reviewers should not be one of the authors, nor they should have a conflict-of-interests related to the work they have to review. Reviewers are not paid, to do their job, but they offer their time voluntarily, for free. Yet, they get something back: reviewing a manuscript (manuscript is the word to indicate a paper not yet accepted for publication) you learn more than just reading a paper. As a reviewer, you really have to go in every detail of the work there presented. Because you have a responsibility. A great responsibility.
With great power comes great responsibility
If you do not care about responsibilities, and want just to know about my doubts, then skip also this section!
The first responsibility is toward the authors of the manuscript. This is their work. They invested their time, energy, knowledge, but also their dreams, hopes, enthusiasm, all this in their piece of research. A reviewer should not betray their trust. The reviewer should take their work seriously, keep it confidential, evaluate it at the best of her/his knowledge.
The second responsibility is toward the scientific community. When a paper will be finally published, other researchers will compare their data and theories against this new piece of information. And they will invest their time, energy and knowledge in doing so, because they have a reasonable expectation that the paper contains valuable information. Maybe, still, the new theory could be wrong, maybe incomplete or the data erroneous. Published papers should never be taken as a guaranteed truth. But they should be worth consideration.
The third responsibility is toward the society. Research has an economical cost. Education, salaries, infrastructures. Money that has been spent, and the peer-review process should at the same time give attention to valuable ideas, should suggest corrections to works going in misleading directions, and should even cut out unworthy or dishonest results. But the responsibility goes beyond this limit. A published paper will maybe ensure more funding to a certain project, or will lead other institutions to invest money in those ideas and methods.
All this — and more, I can tell you — was in my head, the first time I was asked to be reviewer for an important scientific journal. I was thinking about the authors, the scientific community, the society. But then, at the end, it came down to the manuscript. A piece of research work that no one before have read, there in my hands. With all the responsibility it came with.
Yes, the final work, to publish, or not to publish, resides actually in the editor. S/he will decide. But the decision will be based on my comments, on my review, on my recommendation.
That first night, I did not sleep well. I read the manuscript two times, before starting my analysis and investigation. I then went through it, section by section, trying to make a sense of it, following its logic, reasoning on the implications and the assumptions. Was the physics correct? Was the analysis of data correct? Concepts and results were logically consequent to the initial hypothesis? And the method? Questions running in my mind. I tried not to give anything for granted. And not to be biased.
Bias or not bias
But is it really possible not to be biased? How much “knowing to which institute the authors belonged to” would influence the way I was reading that manuscript? Reading University of Oxford, or Università di Canicattì would make a difference? And what about the gender of the first author? Would I give more or less credit to a female author compared to a male one?
I consider myself a fair person, and I do not think I have gender or nationality based prejudices. But, I was wondering, is it the same for all the reviewers? My first answer would be yes, but just for love of science. To be honest, and intellectually correct, it is more than possible that some reviewers would let themselves to be biased.
And what about English?
This is a really big question. And it has no easy answer. I am not a native English speaker, despite conducting all my life — professional and private — in this language. I speak English at work, I speak English with my wife. I also dream in English. Still it is not my first language, and this is the case for most scientists. So, how differently would I judge a manuscript written in fluent and proper English, compared to one poorly written? Is this difference in judgement fair?
I wonder if I , or any other reviewer, would consider with more favor a well written piece of work, whereas I would have a negative approach in front of a text written in broken English — at the limit, sometimes, of being incomprehensible. Despite the scientific quality of the work. Is this also a reason why native speakers publish much more scientific literature than non native speakers researchers?
Oh, too many questions!
It has been a difficult review, my first peer-review. I have tried to be honest and fair.
I read and studied it in all details and making use of the best of my knowledge.
I reviewed it as I would have liked someone to review my work.
I wrote my comments.
And I wrote a final recommendation to the editor.
Now I am here, checking my mail every five minutes, to see what s/he will write me back. Would s/he follow my recommendation? How the authors will respond to my comments?
Oh, now I know, it is not easy to be on the other side of the peer-review process.
Not easy at all.
Lady Gaga and the peer-review process
Let’s be honest here, you would not have read all my discussion about peer-review in scientific journals, if I was not going to post some of these beautiful pictures of Lady Gaga taken by Terry Richardson. Don’t you? So, maybe, science and scientific articles should just be more sexy to be interesting.