Is Peer Review Broken?

This past week I found myself asking this question quite a few times. What is going on with the peer review process? Is anyone actually reviewing the papers getting into journals anymore?

This is due to some recent experiences I’ve had with papers published in both the larger highly reputable journals and smaller niche journals that has left me wondering.  I review papers for Current Issues in Molecular Biology and I have run the peer review process for them so I understand what is expected as an editor or a reviewer. The journal is counting on me to ensure that a high quality paper is approved and nothing less. As an editor running the peer review process and selecting reviewers of the paper, it is my responsibility to make sure I choose people who will be fair, unbiased, and have the time to actually read the paper.

I am incredibly busy, but this is a responsibility I take seriously because not only does a poorly written paper reflect badly on the journal and on the authors, it reflects on the editor.

How did this get published?

Recently I came across a paper that was published in a popular journal for microbiologists despite the fact that it had no control experiments, the conclusions didn’t match the data (see the previous article on the importance of reading a paper thoroughly), and the entire study missed the opportunity to make any scientific contribution to the field by focusing on the wrong points.  How did this make it through peer-review, I asked myself?

Letters can be written to the authors and the editor, however, it doesn’t correct the problem. How does a scientific study gone awry get published anyway? How does every reviewer miss such obvious flaws in a paper?

More examples…

Recently I read a paper from a smaller niche journal for microbiologists that a scientist/friend asked me to comment on. We both came to the same conclusions: the paper was garbage. The authors used the incorrect name for their organism, making one up that doesn’t exist and mislabeled a figure so that the results section did not match the figure legend, making interpretation confusing. Furthermore, they left a key piece of information out of their methods (how much bacteria they used to inoculate the soil), so the data obtained was uninterpretable, and to cap it all they misinterpreted their very own data in the conclusions.

How does this get published? Was it reviewed at all? A paper of this low quality brings down the journal and its editors, and affects the whole field.

It’s not just microbiology journals!

The popular science and general methods type journals are not immune to this problem. Several months ago I read an article in a very popular magazine that used qPCR for their study and attempted to use the MIQE guidelines to validate their work. It was great to see people attempting to use the guidelines.

However, upon opening the attached spreadsheet in the Supplemental Data, I was shocked to see that most of it was empty. The authors actually wrote “NA” in almost every field of the MIQE checklist and didn’t provide any information on yields, purities, etc.  How many people do you think took the time to go to the Supplemental Data and actually see the checklist? I’ll hazard a guess that it is very few since no one else noticed the alarming lack of information contained in their “supplemental data”.

I know we are all busy and I know that we want to help our colleagues to get published, but there needs to be more measures in place that ensure that the standards are high. 

Here’s what I suggest

My suggestion is that if the journal allows the authors to choose reviewers for the paper, the editor running the peer-review process should use only one name from their list and the others are not. Chances are that the reviewers suggested by the authors are going to be very lenient (after all, they are going to ask for the return favor when they publish their next paper) and the one with nothing to gain by approving the paper will give a more accurate assessment.

And editors need to stay objective to the body of work regardless if the authors are friends or collaborators.  It is just like referring someone for a job- it reflects on us as editors if we recommend a piece of work that really is not up to par. No journal wants to publish papers that need erratum published later, or worse, no one takes the time to let the journal or authors know that an article needs erratum and instead the community decides that that the journal is too low tier to even publish there or that the people who publish there are those who get rejected everywhere else.  And of course, no one wants to cite a paper with obvious flaws so the citation index continues to go down.

Ok, so maybe it’s not ALL broken…

I know that the peer-review process does work successfully and that there are many journals making sure that their review process is stringent. It’s probably no coincidence that these journals usually have the highest citation indexes as well.

My advice to all the readers out there preparing papers for submission to journals is to step back and look at your data as objectively as you can. I know you have a theory or model you are trying to prove and want the data to support you. So knowing that, step back and read it again from an outside point of view. What other interpretations could there be? What else could be going on? Let the data tell you what is going on.  Be open to other interpretations of the data and write it up objectively.

Not only will you have a stronger paper that more people will cite, but, it will mean that you were the first to think of it and when other people follow your lead and build on your work, they will have to say you suggested it first. 

And don’t be disappointed if you need to make revisions to the paper when it comes back for review. Thank the reviewers for taking the time to read your work carefully and know that you will be able to re-submit a much stronger and more citable paper in the next round.

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