Under pressure, peer-review

May 5, 2016

Dr. Janice Nigro, Filipodia Editor


If you want to get an emotional response out of even the most introverted of scientific colleagues (yes, that’s me), ask about an article under review. I was once compelled to create a ghoulish effigy of a reviewer (it was Halloween) for each day that I waited for a third-round response on an article. It had been in review for a year and a half. Needless to say, I had quite a collection by the time the acceptance letter arrived. I reread those crumpled sheets of paper recently and thought the reviews were extraordinarily pompous (and long), even stealing lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V as I discovered one evening in the movie theater.


It doesn’t seem as if it should be this way. After all, reviewers and editors are just other scientists, someone you will probably even shake hands with at a conference.


My own style of reviewing papers is quite different. The first paper I ever reviewed I am sure was a test from my PhD advisor. I spent hours poring over this short paper, thinking that I had to write some clever bit to impress him. In the end, I came to a simple conclusion, that the data had been analyzed incorrectly. Two sentences, one summarizing the conclusions and one stating the issue. Simple.


I now read in addition to reviews of my own work, reviews written for my editing projects from around the world (yes, painful). Scientific reviewing seems even more cumbersome today, not despite technology but probably because of it. There is a presumed ease of communication and of the ability to make changes, which becomes a time consuming process.


Scientists are fighting back. The Internet is inspiring new venues even for the centuries old tradition of scientific publication, and scientists are driving the change. Today, one of the options to help you cope with peer review associated with print journals, is to avoid them all together. Online journals, such as the PLoS series, still select articles based on a rigorous peer review process but without the pressure of novelty or how the article might ultimately influence impact factor. These journals were designed for the global dissemination of science so that anyone anywhere can read your story. It is a basic philosophy of science that we sometimes forget.


Other fully open access journals are being developed as well, but have been designed with more of a specialty focus. Oncotarget for example publishes articles largely related to cancer research but has also moved into other fields. The premise for the development of the journal was seemingly in direct opposition to the lethargic peer review process, as the mission statement includes making scientific results “rapidly and widely available.” Furthermore, the journal encourages submission of any previously peer-reviewed articles which may have been “mistakenly rejected by other leading journals” for more immediate online publication.


A more recent development is to upload your complete article in your own time frame on a preprint server called bioarchiv.org. The term preprint is used to signify the status of an article, which means before acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal of any type. A preprint does not take the place of a peer-reviewed article, but it allows authors to take some control in the public dissemination of results in a regulated format. On bioarchiv.org, the science is immediately available, after a prescreening for language and basic content, to anyone with access to the Internet.


The rules about the use of preprints and which journals and granting agencies accept them are still evolving. To date, many high impact journals are on board with the strategy. A similar server has worked for the physical sciences since 1991. The plus side is that your results are immediately available. It also enables the possibility of a form of peer review in “real time,” while waiting for a traditional review from a journal. The down side is also that your results are immediately available. A preprint server thus has the potential to be abused, both in terms of what we upload and how we use that information.


And once it is there, how will we find it? When we know what we are looking for, we can find a study, but what about other unrelated fascinating discoveries? This is where traditional journals, even in their online format, seem to have an advantage—we know exactly where to look.


Whatever venues we choose, there are some things we can do to expedite the review process. Our story is our primary responsibility. Fundamental to a review that ends positively is that our conclusions are supported by a logical, solid series of data-driven experiments. For our manuscript mentioned above, the reviewer was still skeptical at the third pass, but the experiments were irrefutable. Furthermore, it is imperative that an article is well organized and presented in good English. The language facilitates the process for the obvious reason: reviewers can easily follow the storyline. The not so obvious reason is that the reviewers will consider the work more seriously. Finally, as reviewers or editors, we can make sure that the discourse is timely, polite and correct.


Although we might have issues with the current status quo of peer review, the process generally leads to improved manuscripts. In my example, we made some additional surprising findings because of the reviewer’s suggestions. So there was a happy ending. But like any good science story, it really was only a beginning. It’s something to think about when reviewing papers.