Sunday, 10 April 2011

A short rant about journal editors

In the previous post I had an indirect dig at journal editors. In this post the dig will be a lot more direct. Recently I accepted an ‘invitation’ to review a manuscript for a journal that, out of tact, I will not name. It always amuses me that these requests for what is effectively free consultancy are presented as ‘invitations’ as if the journal is doing me a huge favour. Nevertheless I do go through with the charade on occasion (although never to the extent of unctuously thanking the editor for his or her magnanimity) since I do regard reviewing manuscripts as the duty of anyone who publishes in journals. The review was duly completed and, given that I was recommending that the manuscript be put out of its misery as quickly and humanely as possible, I’d been thorough, devoting four or five hours to the assignment.

I’d typed the review as word document, planning to paste it into the relevant form in the editorial system. When I logged in the assignment was no longer there so I emailed the Editor and Support assuming that there was a problem with the system. I got a reply from Support explaining what had happened. The Editor had already made the decision and therefore didn’t need my input any more so the assignment had been deleted. Support noted that this was unfortunate and hoped that they could utilize my services again as a reviewer and I’m still waiting for the Editor’s apology. Not wanting to deprive them of feedback, I suggested that they were being overly optimistic if they thought that I would even consider reviewing another manuscript for them. And that’s where things stand. Humph!

So that was the teaser. What I really wanted to talk about was an editorial entitled ‘Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor’ that appeared in another journal late last year. ChemBark was onto it in a flash and soon it had been Pipelined as well. More recently the editorial was reviewed by Michelle Francl (blogs: 1 | 2 ) in her Nature Chemistry column and to be honest there’s not a lot that I can add to what these commentators have already said. Reading the editorial I couldn’t help thinking that it looked like it could have been pulled right out of a blog and Michelle is right on target when she says, “... I had to admire Murray for his ability to raise so many key questions about science writing in a concise and provocative 619 words. He has real potential as a ‘blogger’”. Except that most blogs allow you to post comments.

Provided that their journals score highly enough, Impact Factor becomes a Maginot Line behind which editors can hide and I was not surprised to see it paraded in the first paragraph of the editorial. One statement that I couldn’t quite get my head round was, “By extension, editors and reviewers reinforce the meaningfulness of Impact Factors by explicit attention to the reliability of submitted articles; if the Scientific Method has not been adequately followed, then there should be a downwardly adjusted evaluation of impact”. I’d always thought that impact factor was determined by numbers of citations and a citation made the same contribution regardless whether an author was heaping praises his previous study or drawing the attention of readers to an odour of something other than roses.

One of the more bizarre assertions made in the editorial is, “Bloggers are entrepreneurs who sell “news” (more properly, opinion) to mass media: internet, radio, TV, and to some extent print news”. Having never received payment for any of my bloggings, I do find this statement a little rich coming as it does from somebody whose journal invites me to purchase content ($35 for 48 hours of access) when I try to look at it. Furthermore, some journals are actually devoted to publishing Opinions and these journals certainly don’t let you see their content for free.

I think what the author of the editorial really doesn’t like about scientific bloggers is their ability to do post-publication review of the journal’s articles in a very public manner. The illusion of the infallibility of Peer Review is often the first casualty when bloggers (and their commentators) discuss specific scientific articles. But can you blame the Editors when all they can see is that the Heretics have taken over the Auto-da-Fé.

Literature cited

R Murray, Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor. Anal. Chem., 2010, 82, 8755 DOI

M Francl, Blogging on the sidelines. Nat. Chem. 2011, 3, 183-184 DOI