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When peer-review goes bad … really bad.

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Neil Brocklehurst, Elsa Panciroli, Gemma Louise Benevento and Roger Benson have a new paper out (Brocklehurst et al. 2021, natch), showing that the post-Cretaceous radiation of modern mammals was not primarily due to the removal of dinosaurs, as everyone assumed, but of more primitive mammal-relatives. Interesting stuff, and it’s open access. Congratulations to everyone involved!


Neil Brocklehurt’s “poster” explaining the new paper in broad detail. From the tweet linked below.

Neil summarised the new paper in a thread of twelve tweets, but it was the last one in the thread that caught my eye:

Thanks to all my co-authors for their tireless work on this, pushing it through eight rounds of review (my personal best)

I’m impressed that Neil has maintained his equanimity about this — in public at least — but if he is not going to be furious about it then we, the community, need to be furious on his behalf. Pushed to explain, Neil laid it out in a further tweet:

Was just one reviewer who really didn’t seem to like certain aspects, esp the use of discrete character matrices. Fair enough, can’t please everyone, but the editor just kept sending it back even when two others said our responses to this reviewer should be fine.

Again, somehow this tweet is free of cursing. He is a better man than I would be in that situation. He also doesn’t call out the reviewer by name, nor the spineless handling editor, which again shows great restraint — though I am not at all sure it’s the right way to go.

There is so, so much to hate about this story:

  • The obstructive peer reviewer, who seems to have to got away with his reputation unblemished by these repeated acts of vandalism. (I’m assuming he was one of the two anonymous reviewers, not the one who identified himself.)
  • The handling editor who had half a dozen opportunities to put an end to the round-and-round, and passed on at least five of them. Do your job! Handle the manuscript! Don’t just keep kicking it back to a reviewer who you know by this stage is not acting in good faith.
  • The failure of the rest of the journal’s editorial board to step in and bring some sanity to the situation.
  • The normalization of this kind of thing — arguably not helped by Neil’s level-headed recounting of the story as though it’s basically reasonable — as someting authors should expect, and just have to put up with.
  • The time wasted: the other research not done while the authors were pithering around back and forth with the hostile reviewer.

It’s the last of these that pains me the most. Of all the comforting lies we tell ourselves about conventionl peer review, the worst is that it’s worth all the extra time and effort because it makes the paper better.

It’s not worth it, is it?

Maybe Brocklehurst et al. 2021 is a bit better for having gone through the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th rounds of peer review. But if it is, then it’s a marginal difference, and my guess is that in fact it’s no better and no worse that what they submitted after the second round. All that time, they could have been looking at specimens, generating hypotheses, writing descriptions, gathering data, plotting graphs, writing blogs, drafting papers — instead they have been frittering away their time in a pointless and destructive conflict with someone whose only goal was to prevent the advancement of science because an aspect of the paper happened to conflict with a bee he had in his bonnet. We have to stop this waste.

This incident has reinforced my growing conviction that venues like Qeios, Peer Community in Paleontology and BiorXiv (now that it’s moving towards support for reviewing) are the way to go. Our own experience at Qeios has been very good — if it works this well the next time we use it, I think think it’s a keeper. Crucially, I don’t believe our paper (Taylor and Wedel 2021) would have been stronger if it had gone through the traditional peer-review gauntlet; instead, I think it’s stronger than it would have been, because it’s received reviews from more pairs of eyes, and each of them with a constructive approach. Quicker publication, less work for everyone involved, more collegial process, better final result — what’s not to like?

References



Source: https://svpow.com/2021/05/19/when-peer-review-goes-bad-really-bad/


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