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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

February 3, 2010


Suzan Mazur, Scoop, NZ - While the hacked emails episode several months ago revealing attempts by scientists to withhold information about global warming from publication has put the matter of peer review under scrutiny like never before, secrecy in peer review continues to be upheld by the science establishment as a good thing rather than seen for what it is a brake on the flow of ideas, a reminder that rogue scientists face rejection by powerful forces, ostracism and other tortures. . .

Why not just thrash these ideas out in the open as in other professional fields and properly pay scientists to write reviews instead of sending the journal money off to Wiley? Maybe then science referees (reviewers) would take time from their academic responsibilities to actually read papers submitted, particularly those from the unaffiliated. . .

I was curious how journ al reviewers are paid and so I called Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesmanaging editor Daniel Salsbury the other day to ask him. Salsbury told me that neither the editorial board nor any of the anonymous reviewers of PNAS the most prestigious science journal in the world is paid. It's "all voluntary", said Salsbury.

What then is the incentive? Why do these extremely busy scientists work as slaves?

Wiley Evolution and Development journal editor Rudy Raff told me scientists see it as "traditional community service." Raff says each of his editors gets an allowance for an editorial assistant but the editor does not get paid nor do the anonymous referees. And Raff thinks the anonymity does work. "It allows reviewers to speak frankly", he said, "many scientists feel if someone is paid, there may be a question of bias."

Massimo Pigliucci, an editor of the fairly new open-access journal Philosophy and Theory in Biology . . . once termed the idea of a paid review "bribery".

But could such journal board positions simply be fast-tracks to publication of an editor’s or an editorial board member’s own work and a tool for access to grant money?

Raff indeed told me that "marks you look for in a scientist" are whether they have served on boards. But not too many, he said. As in the corporate world, that would be a negative indicator.

James MacAllister, a 61-year old graduate student in the Margulis lab at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, went further. MacAllister said "there's certain politics and gaming of the system that goes on at the journals".

MacAllister thinks editors and editorial reviewers are partial to publishing not only their colleagues but scientists whose papers cite familiar names -- including those of the editors and editorial reviewers. Greater visibility of a scientist's work leads to notice by potential funders.

Open-access scientific publishing, however, is proving useful to a degree in leveling the playing field so that independent scientists have a shot at being published and cited. But independent scientists still face the problem of editors not having the cross-disciplinary knowledge necessary to properly assess unique papers, i.e., the biologists may not know enough physics, for example.

Gregory O’Kelly, an independent investigator of electrochemical therapy in treating debilitation following nervous injury and reversing the degeneration of aging, submitted one of his papers titled "The terrestrial evolution of metabolism and life - by the numbers" to the open-access journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modeling. After facing numerous journal rejections, his paper finally drew the attention of TBioMed editor Paul Agutter and the paper was published, resulting in 1,400 viewers.

But when O’Kelly attempted to publish a second paper on the subject in TBioMed that was more cross-disciplinary involving serious math, the philosophy of science and the history of electrophysiology the journal told him it was difficult to find reviewers for the paper. So O’Kelly approached other journals. . .

Floyd Rudmin, a psychology professor at the University of Tromso in Arctic Norway and member of the US organization, Psychologists for Social Responsibility also emailed me . . . about the obstacles to publishing his paper on how minorities adjust . . . "acculturation". Rudmin says there’s been a paradigm running since the 1960s on this that "violates all of the standards of psychological research".

Rudmin says his paper addressing acculturation eventually won an American Psychological Association research prize and his department’s annual research prize, but that the paper could not pass peer review. He published it in an anthropology journal.

The paper is linked near the top on Google, he said, which pleases him. . . Wrote Rudmin:

"One journal, Applied Psychology: An International Review, took one year to get 2 reviews (not the stipulated 3 reviews in 3 months), done by the very scholars [who] I told the editor in advance will oppose because I am exposing their own errors. My complaints to Blackwell’s CEO about this instigated Blackwell to create some editorial guidelines. But Blackwell said that they cannot intervene in any way in editorial decisions about content.

"The problem is ubiquitous, and there is no avenue of appeal. Norway made a science ethics board, but they refuse to consider matters of unethical publication practices. Blackwell’s CEO told me that my only avenue of appeal is to the officers of the science associations who chose the journal editor."

Also emailing was Morad Abou-Sabe, former President & Assistant Chancellor, Misr University for Science & Technology, Cairo and Emeritus Professor, Department of Cell Biology & Neuroscience, Rutgers:

"I guess I am not surprised about the review process, it has always been a privileged club that controlled both ends of the research process, grant funding and publications. I remember that at times I had to go to my congressman for help, but it did not matter. It is the "Old Boys Network", as it is called."

Constructal Theorist Adrian Bejan of Duke University says essentially what the individual investigator is up against is the "academic mafia" and notes the following in International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics:

"Loaded with bias is the review process reserved for the big projects. The review is run by the "leaders," the persons who head (or have headed) the big projects. They are the influential, the ones who are consulted during the review process and even before a new research initiative is selected for funding by the government. They are many, not one. They constitute a social stratum known colloquially as academic mafias and dark networks (in social dynamics, these terms mean "networks of persons exerting hidden influence"). Favored are the applicants who work for the mafia."

Isn’t it time to stop kissing the ring?


Blogger Lars said...

I will only speak for the biological sciences on the issue of anonymous peer review.

While it is true that senior scientists can prevent publication by their juniors in some cases, that eventually catches up with you or earns you a reputation if your reviews are not serious. The editors of the article DO see who the reviewer is, they are colleagues and peers of the reviewers, and they make the decision to publish based on the reviews they get. So while the submitting author may not know who the reviewer is, there is a level of transparency and a way to object to reviews that are unreasonable or seem political.

The converse of this situation is that junior scientists who review the work of their more senior peers might be hesitant to be fully critical without the ability to remain anonymous. Given that career advancements like tenure are dependent on letters of recommendation from outside faculty members, this could prevent real critical evaluation of the work of established scientists.

Some journals, such as The EMBO Journal, are now publishing the peer reviewed comments online after accepting a paper. Now people can see the reviewers comments, if not their name, and form their own opinions if the publication of the paper was justified.

In terms of scientists not being paid for this work, it is largely considered service to the community. If editors and reviewers were paid, it would be easy to see people only working for journals that paid top dollar. And increasingly there are more open access journals being put into circulation, whose costs must be kept down by not paying editors. The practice of not paying editors is more questionable at for profit publishers, but the NIH is pressuring for open access, so perhaps that will become less of a conflict.

February 3, 2010 4:13 PM  

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