There is no form of prose more difficult to understand and more tedious to read than the average scientific paper. — Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis
(Warning: under construction; this was not meant to be public yet)
The referee process in scientific journals is the standard peer review mechanism used by professional and serious Journals to assess the quality and pertinence of a scientific article. Some journals employ a preformatted report system that referees must fill to evaluate the submitted paper. This is followed by a format-free report by the referees where they can expose in more detail their criticisms, recommendations and suggestions to authors. Depending on these, the fate of an article is manifold. For instance:
1) Accepted in current form (none or small changes are needed)
2) Accepted with small changes (but no need for a further referee review)
3) Major changes are needed; paper requires resubmission
The time required for a referee report since submission varies, but for an average-lenght physics paper (< 20 pages), it can take from one to two months.
The Editors are supposed to trust in the Referee qualifications and work ethic, once (s)he accepts the duty. This is usually a pro-bono activity considered by many as a distinction from the Editorial Board as an acknowledgement of expertise. It is assumed that the Referee has no conflicts of interest and that the task will be performed to the best of his/her abbilities.
Perhaps one of the landmarks of such a process is that in most Journals the referee remains annonymous to the authors, but not the opposite.
While this mechanism has been working for years, it is far from being perfect. In fact, in the last thirty years or so the increasing number of submitted articles (based on the motto publish or perish) has produced a growing in the number of journals and referees. Thus, the reality is that the quality of published papers and also the quality of the referee reports has decreased considerably in average. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see published articles that are wrong, nonsensical, or superfluous. Hence one wonders, “What was the referee thinking !”
On the other hand, very often, the referees reject valuable papers based on subjective appreciations and not on scientific objectivity and rigor. This is manifest from the poor quality of the reports in which the comments and criticisms are unsubstantiated or unsuported by sound arguments and references. Maybe there was some kind of conflict of interest after all, or more probably, the referee was not selected by the Editor at all based on such allegedly expertise, excellence record and proved ethics, but randomly by a robot-device that uses a database and an algorithm based on keywords or citations.
The explanation behind this two completely opposite decisions by some referees is that in true honest, many of them lack of experience, qualifications and in some instance, scientific ethics. Otherwise it is difficult to justify them. Moreover, the anonimity and the absence of penalties allows them to act with impunity.
Higher impact or visibility journals (dubbed Letters) impose in addition stringent lenght limitations while demanding a higher quality of content, originality and relevance. They use pre-referee filters like Editors assessment based on “broad interest” or “general scope” grounds prior to sending the paper to the referees. So in cases where the article pass succesfully the “broad interest” criteria, the article is turned to the referee and the process described above follows. However, if the paper fails the filter, then it is simply rejected without a closer schrutinity.
In the last instance, which is the case of most of the submitted papers in this overrated journals, the decision is based purely on subjective grounds that are then difficult to refute by the authors. Yet, very often one cannot help but remain perplexed by the double standards used by the Editors. For instance, a paper on subject X is rejected due to a “lack of broad interest,” but sometime later a paper about a closely related subject is published, or even an intrincate, technical and focused paper that perhaps is only relevant for the authors themselves is accepted. So, what is going on ? Needless to say, in many occasions there is a strong correlation between the affiliation of the authors and the probability of acceptance in this kind of journals regardless of the content and inherent quality of the papers. The “unconscious” justification or malice of such a biased conduct is: “one cannot blame the editors or referees for rejecting papers from low-profile institutions if by ‘definition’ the higher impact research is performed in the top-ranked Universities or research centers.” In other words, the attitude is “How can these fellows dare to submit such results in this journal ? Even if correct, the paper cannot be so important, othewise some of the big shots would have discovered first.”
Of course, this is just one of the off -the-record interpretations. But one cannot avoid to think otherwise when one sees published papers by renowed people about a subject that a week before was considered utterly unimportant by the same journal when submitted by not very well known authors or institutions.
The message is clear: the necessary condition to publish such Letters seems to be name. Quality and importance comes afterwards. Obviously, the Journal will always claim fairness, correctness and ethics, and will never akcnowledge such practices if an inquiry is pursued. After all, they can argue “even Nobel laureates have undergone rejections” (see the link below).
So given the fact that many authors have been treated unfairly, the question is, What can we do to improve this situation ?
As concerns the affilliation issue one obvious solution would be that the authors as well as their insitutions be anonymous to the referees. But clearly this is just a decision that only Editorial Boards can take.
So appart of performing cathartic exchanges with colleagues that have suffered the same ordeal, of privately insulting the referee and the journal, of suffering spells of rage against the first thing we find in front of us or having a depressing day or week that follows the unjustified rejection of a paper, What to do ?
We decided that perhaps the first step towards an improvement of this situation was to expose publicly some of the non-sensical referee reports or editor responses together with the names of the concerned journals.
Why ? Well, perhaps because then one of the alluded anonymous referees will feel guilty enough so that in a deep act of selfcriticism and contrition will think it twice before writing such infamous reports again. Or maybe, because one of the alluded journals will change their double standards and start assuming a more fair review process like the one suggested above. Or even because we want to gather more objetive evidence showing that this is not just a delusion from some “misunderstood, bitter, frustrated and incompetent minuscule” group of authors, but a palpable and actual reality shared by a truly unfairly treated legion of people (For notable rejections see: https://majesticforest.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/papers-that-triumphed-over-their-rejections/ ;https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.8.1.165; http://www.evolutionnews.org/2013/12/sign_of_the_tim080011.html)
Remark: If you want to share a referee report with the bloggers, please attach a correspoding link to your comment below.