Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tales From The Science Trenches: The problem of journal addiction

Note: Over the next few months I'll be doing a series of posts critiquing modern peer-review process.  As part of this I'd like to collect stories from other scientists on their experiences trying to get papers through peer-review.  Good or bad, if you have a story you'd like to share, please email me (timothyv[at]gmail[dot]com) or put them in the comments section and I'll post them as I see them.  

Today's guest post comes from Joern Diedrichsen who is one of the smartest, most creative scientists that I know.  He studies motor control at University College London and has a provocative take on the pains of the current peer-review process and the addictive mentality that keeps bringing us back for more.

The problem of journal addiction

"Let’s admit it, we are all suckers for glossy journals. Nature, Science, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience... oh, how we puff up our chest when we have a paper accepted in a high place! How we strut around and announce in talks: “our new paper in xxx shows…”. And how deflated, angry, and bitter are we after a rejection.  How we hate the reviewers and the editors. "Ignorant bastards just do not understand anything."

And of course, we are correct. Our papers are misinterpreted, rejected for selfish reasons, or because of plain ignorance. And the editors do not have the spine to stand up and tell reviewers how petty they are.  And the next time WE get asked to review a paper for this journal – which is really not as good as our rejected paper – we’ll show them! The review request lands in our inbox and we metamorphose into the dreaded reviewer 2. Or 3 (depending on how many hours past lunch it is).

Of course we could boycott the whole system. Retreat to a small island. Only send papers (no matter how good) to PLOSone or Frontiers. But a month later, when the wounds have healed, we find ourselves preparing a cover letter for another submission to one of the hated journals. Talk about addiction.

Do we really think that the title of the journal we publish in means this much? Considering the degree to which professional editors are slaves to fashion, and how random the review process is, we really shouldn’t. I think some of my weaker papers have been published in “better” journals - and vice versa. There is a slight positive correlation – but not very high.  Many of the papers that in retrospect are important, get cited, and have impact on the field are in 2nd-tier journals. But then again, in terms of careers, candidate selection, and funding decisions, we all like to rely on the fast heuristic of the impact factor, not on how important we think the paper is.

So, rather than go by the journal name, if we all would READ the actual papers, see how clear, compelling and novel the results really are, we should be able to break the yoke that editors and reviewers hold over us, right? So, why are we not online every week making sure that good papers in 2nd tier journals get their well-earned exposure by posting online evaluations on journal websites? Why do the online debates in PLOS Comp Biology often only consist of statements such as “The reference section is missing a crucial reference: My article, 2011”? Why does Faculty of 1000 seem to be struggling in terms of relevance and in getting enough submissions? I guess we are simply too busy writing angry reviews, rewriting our own papers for the next glossy journal, or arguing with journal editors. And trust me, life as an editor is not rosy either. Talk about a thankless job.

Currently, I do not see a good way out. Do we really think that low-threshold mass-journals like Frontiers and PLOSone are the solution? It seems there is just too much stuff out there, and post-hoc online evaluations by people in the field seem not to work very well. So maybe the traditional peer-review and tiered journal system is – like western democracy and capitalism – the lesser of the evils…. But maybe we can start to not reject because we feel the paper is too novel, doesn’t cite us enough, or infringes on our turf? Maybe we should stop pushing papers by friends in high profile journals for political gain? Maybe we should stop evaluating people based on where they publish and turn our attention to the science they produce instead? Perhaps teach our students some integrity and honesty?

No time for that…. I need to fine-tune that cover letter…"


  1. Hi timothy. Here's the link to a recent paper on the state of peer review from our lab.
    Thought you may find it interesting ( especially figure 2 in the paper) fully agree with Joern Diedrichsen's comments on this issue. Maybe it's time to start a occupy peer-review movement?

  2. I'm assuming you're Chris?

    Thanks for the pointer. Dan Handwerker passed it along as soon as it came out. It's funny since Brad Voytek and I were toying around with a set of similar ideas a few weeks ago. Wouldn't call it being scooped, but it was erie how similar the thought process was.

    I really appreciate you going through the effort to put this out there. It's a great foundational analysis for maybe getting some momentum to fixing things. Should we start the hash-tag #occupypeerreview?