Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Peer Into the World of Academic Publishing: Part 1

Writing research articles is a big part of my job, as well as a necessity in getting grant funding and/or certain jobs. A big part of writing articles is dealing with reviewers and determining how to revise an article based on those reviews. In fact, at the moment, I'm working on two revisions.

But it occurred to me that the world of peer-review publishing may seem a bit foreign to some, so I thought I'd write today about what peer review is, why it's so important, and what it's not. This is going to be a long post, so I'll be dividing it up. I'm also planning to share (in a not-too-distant future post) some of my favorite reviews, many of which are - believe it or not - pretty demoralizing. Perhaps one of the best things I've developed as part of this job is thicker skin when it comes to criticism of my writing and understanding of research.

Because both of those things have been challenged in this crazy research world. That's right, I've been called a bad writer and a poor methodologist. Sometimes for the same article that another reviewer calls well-written and meticulously planned. Everyone's a critic.

No, really - in the world of academic publishing, everyone is a critic, or at least, has the potential to be. (Dying for some funny reviews now? Check out Shit My Reviewers Say.)

In scientific fields, especially careers funded by grants as well as at certain types of universities, there is an expectation to publish research results. We in academia/research call this "publish or perish." And it can be pretty brutal.


For the moment, we'll skip over the need to come up with research ideas that grant reviewers like in order to do research to begin with, and move straight to writing research up for publication. After research is complete (and yes, sometimes while research is in progress, if we have early results to share), we begin writing scientific articles that talk about the research we did, how we did it, and what we found. At some point during the writing, we begin thinking about what journal we think would be most likely to publish our paper.

And if you're like me, you have a second, third, even fourth option, because reviewers.

After the paper is complete, we submit it to our first-choice journal. It goes to an editor, who usually reads over the article to make sure it's the type of paper they would want to publish, and also to ensure the article is in the right format, and often to make sure it contains no author information, if the journal uses double-blind peer review. Then he or she selects reviewers to contact about reviewing the paper.

As I said, at some journals, the reviewer(s) receive the paper with no author information. We call this double-blind because the reviewers don't know who wrote the article and the authors don't know who reviewed the article. This allows us all to remain cordial with each other at conference happy hours.

Shortly before this scene took place, Dr. Fist was heard shouting, "Say 'regression to the mean' one more time! I dare you!'"
It also, supposedly, makes academic publishing an equal playing field. The world-renowned scholar in X does not get to use her name to get published, and the brand new grad student studying X does not have to worry that no one in the field has heard of him (yet).

The reviewers read the article and make their recommendations to the editor of whether it should be 1) accepted without revision (HAPPY DANCE!), 2) accepted pending revision (Happy dance!), 3) revise and resubmit without guarantee of acceptance (Um, happy dance?), or 4) reject (...).

Good reviewers will also provide some feedback to the authors, letting them know why the reviewer made this decision and how the paper could be improved, whether it is resubmitted to the same journal or submitted somewhere else.

But nothing says a reviewer has to give feedback. And some are very terse. I have received two reviews, I suspect from the same person (different articles, but submitted to the same journal a year or so apart), that totaled 4 sentences. In one of these cases, the paper was invited for a revision, so I had to make what I could of those 4 sentences, but base most of my revision on reviewer 2, who was one of the most awesome reviewers I've ever had.

If the article is rejected, researchers will often still read reviews and take what they can from them before submitting to another journal. Of course, some don't. And in small fields, it's quite likely that they'll get the same reviewer again (I've seen it happen). But as you may have noticed, the peer review itself can be very subjective. Though some journals have various criteria they ask reviewers to consider, they are still asked for their final decision using the four categories above. They could give the paper high marks on everything and still pick reject.

I'll go into more specific details about peer review in my next post, but I realized that, at this moment, you might be wondering, "So what's the point? Do we publish articles to show our smarts, impress granting agencies and HR departments, and satisfy our vanity of seeing our name in print?" Well, yeah. But that's not all!


Think back to school, especially science classes - the textbook probably discussed various laws, theories, observed relationships, established principles, etc. You learned how gravity works. Why we have magnetic fields. Why when a stranger does something mean, he's an asshole but when your friend does something mean, she must be having a bad day (we call this the fundamental attribution error).

These bits of information come from research. But the research doesn't go straight from the scientist's mouth to the textbook company's ears. It has to be disseminated in some other way, often publication.

Over time, people read that publication, and do more research on the topic. That research gets disseminated. Finally, when something has been pretty strongly established and becomes well-known in a given field, it makes its way into textbooks. And, more importantly, it becomes part of common practice.

Treatment for high blood pressure - that comes from research. The optimal color for a fire truck - research. Cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness - you guessed it, research.

These are applied topics, of course. A lot of research is what we would call basic (establishing and testing theoretical principles), but basic research - such as research determining what causes high blood pressure - can lead to applied research. Basic research helps us to understand an underlying mechanism, and applied research helps us to use that mechanism to make changes in our world.

As I've blogged about before, science is what gives us the quality of life to which we've become accustomed. Researchers have a duty to share their work to help build the evidence base, and inspire additional research. Of course, peer review can also stand in the way of sharing work. More on that in my next post.

To be continued...

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