Tuesday, June 26, 2012

More Thoughts on Peer Review

This morning I saw a new blog post by Peter Coles dealing with a topic I have written about before: the problems with the current system of scientific peer review. He too has strong opinions on the subject, which he has expressed several times on his blog. For the most part, I think our shared disgruntlement with the system stems from the same source — academic publishers trumpeting Peer Review (capitals intentional) as some sort of absolute certificate of quality that only they are able to provide, and provide at an exorbitant cost at that, whereas in fact not only it can probably be organised far more cheaply, the current system isn't all that hot at sorting out the wheat from the chaff anyway.

Coles takes a particular example of a paper recently published in the Astrophysical Journal in order to illustrate his point. The authors make a strong claim — the sort of strong claim that requires watertight evidence to back it up — and yet a key figure in the paper relies on interpreting a curve, which is supposed to be a cubic spline interpolation of the data, that passes through only two data points. Where are the other data points? Presumably they exist, but they aren't displayed in the figure. At the very least this is sloppy and unhelpful to anyone trying to reproduce the results, and the referee should have asked for a modification. But referees are often sloppy and distracted themselves; when there is only one referee to pass judgement on the merits of a paper the outcome of Peer Review should really be taken with a giant pinch of salt.

(I should point out that I have no idea whether this paper was reviewed by only one referee; most of the journals I am familiar with tend to run a default single-referee policy, but the Astrophysical Journal may be different. However, I have noticed several papers accepted to the Astrophysical Journal recently that in my opinion suffer from similar sloppy faults, one of which I blogged about here.)

Anyway, if the system of peer review is faulty in this manner, what should be done about it? I argued that at a minimum, journals should publish the correspondence between the referee and the editor, and the authors' responses to criticisms. This would help to highlight the cases of sloppy negative reviews, such as the instances, pointed out in a comment by Sarah, of referees simply requesting changes that are already included in the manuscript (sadly this happens quite a lot, in my experience). It would put some pressure on journal editors to improve the standard of refereeing in order to protect reputations, and make it obvious when a paper has only been reviewed by one individual. It wouldn't do a great deal to deal with sloppy positive reviews, leading to the acceptance of papers of the sort that Coles is complaining about today.

Coles' own solution is to do away with Peer Review by one or two individuals altogether, and instead have a sort of community rating system on the arXiv itself, along the lines of reddit:
I’m not saying the arXiv is perfect but, unlike traditional journals, it is, in my field anyway, indispensable. A little more investment, adding a comment facilities or a rating system along the lines of, e.g. reddit, and it would be better than anything we get academic publishers at a fraction of the cost. Reddit, in case you don’t know the site, allows readers to vote articles up or down according to their reaction to it. Restrict voting to registered users only and you have the core of a peer review system that involves en entire community rather than relying on the whim of one or two referees. Citations provide another measure in the longer term. Nowadays astronomical papers attract citations on the arXiv even before they appear in journals, but it still takes time for new research to incorporate older ideas.
I agree with the sentiment, but in the interest of fairness I should point out a couple of objections. Firstly, clearly only some papers will get reviewed this way. Many perfectly correct papers will be ignored simply because they are not on currently fashionable topics. Although writing papers that are of current interest to your fellow scientists is of some importance, it shouldn't be the sole criterion for judging merit!

Secondly, simple votes up or down are not particularly useful to a reader: if I am to trust the judgement of the people voting on the quality of a paper I'd really need to read a justification from them of why they voted in a particular way. This would amount to a mini-review of the paper and its strong (or weak) points. Such reviews would need to be provided anonymously — by the registered users of the site — in order ensure that people felt secure enough to express honest opinions. Non-anonymous review systems would I think inevitably dwindle into relative irrelevance like Cosmo Coffee has done, but completely anonymous systems would probably develop into flame wars in the classic tradition of the internet (at least with the current system the identity of the referee is known to the journal editor if no one else!).

I'd like to hear further comments from interested and informed readers. Perhaps a perfect system isn't possible, but I'm sure there are improvements which can be made to the current model. And even if that isn't the case, I think the moral you should draw from the story is that not all that is published is gold, not all those who aren't are lost. Or something more poetically phrased than that!


  1. Andrew Pontzen's piece in New Scientist is also well worth reading.

  2. I feel really sad that Cosmo Coffee died basically as we became postdocs. It was a great idea (one of my most important papers came from something I read at Cosmo Coffee). I'm not 100% sure it is the issue of a lack of anonymity that is the problem though. People do discuss physics in a non-anonymous manner on blogs and in comments to blogs (all the time!!). In fact, Peter Coles just did! You and I have too, various times in the last 12 months!

    But it always happens at blogs, and not at Cosmo Coffee!

    This is one of the reasons I suggested we set up this "Collective Marvelling" network. One day (probably not until next year) I hope to try to work out a way to get all the comments written at our blogs to show up at a central Cosmo Coffe-like website (and vice-versa) - or maybe Cosmo Coffee itself. So all physics discussions in the blog network show up in *one* place.

    There are rss comment feeds, so this shouldn't, in principle, be impossible.

    I don't have any ideas/solutions to the Peer Review problem though. At least, none that haven't been written many times elsewhere.

    1. There's a thread at Cosmo Coffee where more than one person explained that is why they don't comment much there. My speculation is that blog posts are slightly different. I guess only naturally loud-mouthed people like us write blogs, and there's also a small amount of purely psychological comfort in knowing that your blog post is probably read by fewer senior academics than Cosmo Coffee is (or was). The same goes for blog comments, only more so since these can even be anonymous or practically anonymous.

    2. Yeah, I've seen the thread. I suppose it depends on how often those people who don't post at Cosmo Coffee, because it isn't anonymous, also post at blogs - I would expect seldom. I should stress that my thoughts have nothing to do with replacing (or even have much relevance to) peer review in any way, I just commented because your post reminded me of them. The idea is instead just a way to have more physics discussion visible on the internet for physicists, students and the public to digest (i.e. what Cosmo Coffee was meant to be but for some reasons didn't work).

      I still don't think the lack of anonymity at Cosmo Coffee was the main problem. Having senior academics read one's insightful questions and comments could even be a good thing. I think the problem has more to do with the fact that having these conversations takes a lot of effort. Expressing one's self about physics takes care and time. Equally, preparing a blogpost (or comment) takes time. But, people own their blogs and take pride in having them be successful. Therefore they put effort into them.

      Actually, on that theme, I like Peter Cole's idea of a reddit style system, but instead for *this* problem (I don't think it is a good idea for replacing peer-review, which was his actual idea). People need to get some sort of feeling of awesomeness for contributing to the discussion. If people could upvote good comments at Cosmo Coffee and posts that generate lots of discussion get "Karma", people would feel awesome if they got upvoted. Just like you feel awesome because your blogpost sparked me (or anyone) to write a comment.

      The reason it is a bad idea for peer-review is that publishing papers is something that actually matters; Reddit works because Karma doesn't. If papers were subject to upvotes and downvotes I would email all my friends every time I submitted a paper asking them to upvote my paper (and it would probably also be helpful to me if I downvoted everyone else's), I would also do the same at blog, twitter, facebook and the lunch table (and certain Finnish friends would probably end up upvoting my papers multiple times to compete against each other). The people who gamed that system best would get upvoted the most. Your ideas re:improving peer review sound much smarter to me... and Syksy independently at lunch agreed with you (without knowing he was doing so!)