I Hate Your Paper
Many say the peer review system is broken. Here’s how some journals are trying to fix it.
Twenty years ago, David Kaplan of the Case Western Reserve University had a manuscript rejected, and with it came what he calls a “ridiculous” comment. “The comment was essentially that I should do an x-ray crystallography of the molecule before my study could be published,” he recalls, but the study was not about structure. The x-ray crystallography results, therefore, “had nothing to do with that,” he says. To him, the reviewer was making a completely unreasonable request to find an excuse to reject the paper.
Kaplan says these sorts of manuscript criticisms are a major problem with the current peer review system, particularly as it’s employed by higher-impact journals. Theoretically, peer review should “help [authors] make their manuscript better,” he says, but in reality, the cutthroat attitude that pervades the system results in ludicrous rejections for personal reasons—if the reviewer feels that the paper threatens his or her own research or contradicts his or her beliefs, for example—or simply for convenience, since top journals get too many submissions and it’s easier to just reject a paper than spend the time to improve it. Regardless of the motivation, the result is the same, and it’s a “problem,” Kaplan says, “that can very quickly become censorship.”
“It’s become adversarial,” agrees molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, who co-chaired the National Institutes of Health 2008 working group to revamp peer review at the agency. With the competition for shrinking funds and the ever-pervasive “publish or perish” mindset of science, “peer review has slipped into a situation in which reviewers seem to take the attitude that they are police, and if they find [a flaw in the paper], they can reject it from publication.”
“When it comes to journals and publications, I’m highly skeptical that [the peer review] process adds much value at all,” adds Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, who has written extensively about peer review. “In fact, it detracts value because it wastes a lot of time of a lot of people,” he says. “There’s lots of evidence of the downside of peer review, and very limited evidence of the upside.”
Now, scientists and editors are taking alternative approaches to tackle some of the pervasive problems with traditional peer review and put the “scientific” back into scientific publishing. They include enabling authors to carry reviews from one journal to another, posting reviewer comments alongside the published paper, or running the traditional peer review process simultaneously with a public review.
“We thought that it’s time to change the atmosphere of how we communicate scientific knowledge,” says Idan Segev, a co-founder of Frontiers, one of a handful of journals cropping up that aim to better this system that most consider essential to the scientific community