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What's happening to Peer Review?

kljhWe all rely upon peer review to get published in respectable scientific journals, but is it working? John Cope* has his doubts. 

NB: This is a longer version of the article published in GeoscientistEditor

We all rely upon the peer review system to get our articles published in respectable scientific journals, but is it functioning as it should?  My recent and colleagues’ anecdotal experience tend to suggest otherwise.

Over my 50+ years’ experience, my publications range from one page discussions to palaeontological monographs, books and book chapters.  In general I have been well satisfied by my treatment at the hands of referees and editors. 

Recently I have had two contrasting publications through the refereeing mill.  The first, some 40 000 words long was published with one referee’s report, after a long fruitless search to find another referee willing or able to do it.  Obviously, I thought, the length is off-putting.  However, the second publication (under 2500 words) still took two months to find a second reviewer; the editor informing me that he had at least eight refusals.

Former colleagues have said that they now always rejected requests to referee a paper, citing ‘pressure of work’.  In this context it can be noted that in his end 2017 valedictory Editorial in the PGA, former Editor-in-Chief Jim Rose, in his review of his eight year term of office, noted that many British (and only British) academics do not even have the decency to reply to an invitation to review an article!

It is well-known that here has always been a handful of ‘Prima Donna’ workers who took this attitude, but now it seems this is becoming the norm.  If main-stream researchers are no longer potential referees, then reviewers are likely to be retirees (who are assumed to have more time on their hands) or younger researchers, who may be flattered to think that their name has been recognised.  The pitfalls of this are that the older worker may not be up-to-speed in the subject whilst the younger ones may not yet have sufficiently developed critical faculties.

This will inevitably lead to a lowering of standards and the publishing of papers that should not have seen the light of day.  I and colleagues are able to identify an increasing number of papers lacking in scientific rigour and exhibiting faults that should have been identified by any competent referee.  But it is not only the reviewers that are at fault here, but editors too.  Many international journals now boast long lists of editorial board members; some members are junior researchers who have made a name on the basis of a handful of good papers.  But a good researcher need not be a good editor.  Elementary spelling mistakes are becoming legion and a lack of basic training in nomenclature is beginning to haunt palaeontological literature.  Thus a paper published in one of the world’s most prestigious palaeontological journals quotes ‘septae’ as the plural of ‘septum’; another paper lacks the obligatory commas between an author’s name and the date of publication of the species, whilst a colleague told me of a paper in which a new species has nine holotypes!

The peer review system has always made mistakes.  I recall a former Society archivist who turned up an MS, submitted to the Society in the early 1950s, and finding that a referee had written on one page ‘the silly believes in continental drift’! 

The most famous case that I am aware of (there will obviously be others in different fields) was suffered by the late John Callomon.  He had written a thorough review of sexual dimorphism in Jurassic ammonites.  This hypothesis has long become internationally accepted and dimorphism is now recognised in ammonoids from the Devonian to the Late Cretaceous.  But John Callomon’s review, written in the late 1950s was repeatedly rejected by palaeontological and biological journals in the UK and North America.  Why?  The answer is that the two foremost ammonite experts, W. J. Arkell and L. F. Spath, refused to countenance Callomon’s ideas and as the paper was automatically sent to either or both of these, the paper was always rejected.  Finally in 1963 Peter Sylvester-Bradley at Leicester published it in the Transactions of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society.  That journal may be well known in literary and philosophical fields but is unlikely to have wide international subscriptions in geological circles. Realising that, it was arranged for abundant reprints to be made available.  These were widely distributed internationally and instantly acclaimed, but unfortunately a few months after a Polish paper describing dimorphism.

I have had no ‘major revision’ submissions but I have had three outright rejections.  One of these still rankles:  In 1978 I wrote a short paper and submitted it to Nature as I had just discovered agglutinated foraminiferans in the Lower Cambrian of Carmarthenshire; this was a major coup as at that time no forams were known in earlier rocks than the Devonian.  The paper described how the sandstone formation yielding these fossils lay unconformably above the sediments with an Ediacaran fauna that I had described in Nature the previous year and was in turn overlain by Upper Cambrian rocks with olenid trilobites.  Photographs showed the variable test shape, and close-ups showed pores through the test and a cross-sectional view.  I received a rejection accompanied by a single reviewer’s comments that in essence said that as no forams were known before the Devonian I must have mistaken the age of the rock, but it was the last sentence that stuck in my mind so much that I can still repeat it verbatim ‘Even if foraminifera existed in Lower Cambrian rocks they could not possibly be as sophisticated as these organisms were’.  How I wish I’d kept that letter!  What made it even more galling was that a year later Nature published details of early Cambrian foraminifera from Newfoundland — they were clearly the same species as my fossils but not as well preserved.  With other things to write up it was another 20 years before these fossils were eventually described with the help of a researcher who had just completed a DPhil on Cambrian foraminifera.  Thus, thanks to one or more unsuitable referees I lost my moment of glory!

So if the peer review system is to survive as a well-functioning way of vetting manuscripts for publication, it is essential that main-stream active research workers commit some of their time to reviewing papers.  But it may need some official system of recognition of the effort they put into this to persuade them to change their minds from their present increasingly obdurate stance.