Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reviewing: A Thankless Job?

Hello, Dear Readers!

Excuse me for a moment while I brush the digital dust off of the blog. Ignore the cyber-spiders and the e-webs. There. That is much more presentable.

There has been a lot going on in my life since January, and much of it is not positive. I'm not going to elaborate on that here and now: those issues are still fresh and mutating, and I can't predict the outcome. I can postulate several likely outcomes, but which one will it be?

I'll focus instead on the productive side of my life. I made it a mission to continue with the paper writing storm we started in 2013. There have been delays, hurdles, and (of course) the unexpected, but 2014 is starting to bear the fruits of the academic trees we planted in 2013. First, a large ichnology publication on which I am second author is out, summarizing the work that has been done on vertebrate ichnology in western Canada over the last decade (the bulk of which includes discoveries and research by us and our volunteer team in the Peace Region.) Next, I am waiting for proofs for the published version of my M.Sc. thesis on Coelophysis dentition (this was the last update on that endeavor.) There are three collaborative papers that will be heading to press in March. All in all, not a bad academic start to 2014.

I have also been reviewing papers. If you have read my previous posts, you know that I take my role as Reviewer seriously and feel that, despite some flaws (check out the Nature's Peer Review Debate here), the peer-review system is the best means we have by which to produce and disseminate scientifically accurate information.

It takes time and effort to provide a thoughtful and constructive review of a paper. Most authors, who have also been on the Reviewer end of the process, recognize this. Most scientific papers contain an "Acknowledgements" section. There are items which should appear in the Acknowledgements section (e.g., grants, direct contributors who are not authors, etc.) It can look like the Academy Awards acceptance speech for scientists. If the current form of the paper would not exist without the input or efforts of other parties, you thank those parties. For example, in both the university and the published version of my M.Sc. thesis, I give shout-outs to the curators, collections managers, and technical staff who assisted me in accessing the specimens. I thank the people with whom I discussed the project at great length. I thank my committee. In the published version I thank all of these, and I also thank the reviewers.

Scientists, being human, sometimes take the opportunity to interject a little of their personality (humor, snark, noncompliments) into their published work (examples here and here).  For the big ichnology review, we really wanted to change the heading of the Acknowledgements section to "Ichnoledgements," but apparently that was taking a joke too far. Fair enough. In a scientific paper about dogs, one would not be able to change the experiment methodology heading to "Mutterials and Methods."

I flipped through one of the papers that I had recently reviewed. I find it interesting to see how the authors incorporate my revision suggestions. As a reviewer, I know that my comments may be accepted in full or completely rejected in a letter to the journal editor (with justification as to why they are rejected). In the end, it is up to the author to decide which suggested revisions to incorporate or ignore; however, the journal editor can also insist on or add amendments to the reviewer comments. [NOTE: Don't want to incur the wrath of your editors/reviewers? Show how you incorporated their suggestions!]

One thing that caught my gaze was the Acknowledgements section. Not one reviewer was named or thanked.


There is cranky, and then there is owl-strength cranky. Link to image.
While there is no rule that states "Thou shalt thank thy reviewers or forever burn in a pit of reality TV programming," you learn by reading (recent) paper after paper after paper after paper (etcetera, etcetera) that there are recurring themes in the Acknowledgements section. One of these is thanking the reviewers.

"Hold up, Shaman," you may ask, "why be annoyed? Aren't scientists expected to review papers? And don't you get your papers reviewed in turn?" (The extremely polite version of an actual comment received by a colleague not thanked by the authors for their review: the original comment contained the words "whining" and "self-centered.")

This cat is disappointed with your patronizing dismissal of my colleague's critique. Image link.
There are logical reasons for thanking your reviewers, especially if they are not anonymous:
  • Naming your reviewers gives the final version of your paper historical transparency: everyone who reads the paper knows who had some influence on its content.This is exactly why thanking those who have directly influenced your paper is not just gratuitous thanks: great or small, they are also responsible for the final published content. Readers of that paper should know the names of the hands stirring the pot.
  • Professional courtesy and respect: researchers are not sitting for hours with tense anticipation at their computer, eagerly awaiting the "BING" of an incoming email with a review request. They are writing papers, teaching and advising students, grading, serving on communities, and, somehow, having a personal life. Yes, we are expected to review, and yes, we expect ourselves to review. However, if a researcher has too much going on in the timeframe of the review request, they can decline. When a fellow researcher accepts a request to review your paper, they are taking time in their already packed professional lives to ensure your paper is ready to publish. That deserves acknowledgement.
  • Naming reviewers lets your colleagues know who is functionally available to review papers on certain topics. This can be a good resource for less experienced authors who might not yet know who all the experts in their specialization who also are available to review manuscripts.
There are reasons why reviewers might not be named:
  • Some journals may remove the names of the reviewers on their final formatting. This may be done to preserve a feel of complete objectivity during the review process, but in my opinion the benefits of naming reviewers outweigh the costs, especially in a field as relatively small as vertebrate paleontology. When in doubt, be transparent.
  • The review is really, really bad. I'm not talking about a review that is critical and results in the rejection of the paper, but a truly piss-poor job done by the reviewer. There are some reviews that are negative without providing any feedback, insulting, or vindictive. Comments such as "This is wrong" without any follow-up information is an example of a completely useless review. Sadly, many of these stories seem to correlate with anonymous reviewers, but not all do. I feel that if a review is truly not helpful, there is little point in thanking said reviewer. They are not doing science any service.
  • The reviewers are anonymous. I have mixed feelings about this. I thank my anonymous reviewers. Others do not. Reviewers may have valid reasons for remaining anonymous. Perhaps they know the authors well (a good chance in vertebrate paleontology) and want to write as objectively as possible. Perhaps they do not agree with the authors' conclusions, but do not want to risk offending a well-established colleague (something students may feel). 
As a personal example, I did consider an anonymous review for one paper only because I thought it was poorly presented and that the interpretations of the results were incomplete. There is always a chance the authors will take the review personally rather than as a critique on what was needed to bring the paper up to code.
Yes, in this analogy the paper is a house. Image link.
In the end I waived anonymity. There was nothing I put in the review that I wouldn't have said in person to the authors were they sitting in front of me as I read the paper. That was my choice, and I can't say that my choices are right for everyone. Each reviewer has to decide what they do with the option of anonymity: every situation is slightly different.

A final word (for this post) on thanking reviewers: I believe this is just the polite thing to do. Just because reviewing papers is an expected part of our jobs doesn't mean that we do not deserve to be thanked for doing our jobs. I thank the police when I have to call them. I thank my doctor and pharmacist. I thank waitstaff and the people who make my coffee. I thank my employees and volunteers. I thank my advisers and colleagues. They are doing their jobs, and I was raised to thank the people who help me. Everyone who does something for you is a person, and people like to be acknowledged for their hard work. It's the simplest way to let that person know that you appreciate their efforts.

Thank You.


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