Peer review in science – “politically” correct?

Peer Review Cartoon

This is a very interesting and controversial subject for scientists: why peer revision of scientific articles is so frustrating and time consuming? Like the cartoon illustration above, publishing our findings is not a very pleasant and enjoyable process. After spending months and sometimes years doing experimental procedures and collecting data (which are not easy tasks either…) we, as scientists, need to deal with decisions such as the journal that we will submit the article and the anxiety of acceptance or rejection of our work. Most importantly, some sort of “help” from politics is always needed. By this I mean that when you know the editor of the journal or somebody inside the editorial board it is much easier to get your article accepted for publication. It is like in any community; you need to be inside or even join the “club”. Metaphorically speaking, it is like in sports, journalism, or any other profession (well, not just in professions, but also in religion such as religious groups in which individuals help each other). It does not matter if your research and results are outstanding (and please I am not generalizing here); the most important component for success is who you know and how they could be of any help. Rejection of articles is part of the scientific game and like in anything in life sometimes it is not fair. I always question myself on why we spend a lot of effort and time to get the best results (luck is a very important factor here too) and the reviewers “kill” or destroy your article when you submit it for publication. Well, I believe that now there is no other way for the evaluation of science quality and importance; however we will need to come up with better and faster ways than the ones used by the system at the moment. Another disturbing fact is that sometimes you send the article for revision and the points of view of the reviewers are completely different. How could this be even if they have a different formation and opinion? Imagine that: you have nice results, write the article in a very concise way, and send it for publication expecting good suggestions to improve your research even if the article is rejected. Differently from expected, we get revisions that are nonsense from reviewers we don’t even know (peer revision is “confidential” – are they really confidential? I am starting to question that too…). You can suggest to the editor of the journal specific names of scientists that you want to revise your article (mainly people you know and that are respected in your field to give credibility to your work) and even tell the editor that others should not get the article in any circumstance mainly because of conflict of interests or the fact that they are competitors in that field among other reasons. Isn’t this too much of a political process? From my understanding pure science should be more independent from politics. Let’s go back in time and discuss Einstein’s theories and how he became famous. Of course at that time we had no globalization of social media like today; these were old times. Einstein wrote the “Theory of Relativity” when he was working in a Patent Office in Zurich (he wasn’t even linked or working in a laboratory or a major university at that time, but he always had this passion for physics and related fields). Of course, physics is all about theories, but other scientists needed to prove with experiments if he was right. At that time, he had trouble to publish his theory since he was unknown by the scientific community (or as I say here “club”). In fact, he was an outsider that struggled to make his ideas and theories accepted and even published. In the end, he was able to publish it and several years after that other scientists in the field started to show experimentally that he was right in mostly every detail. Some years after that, Einstein won the Nobel Prize and he was in the cover of several newspapers and magazines around the world. Using this example, what I want to show is that “the club” sometimes is so politically closed and incorrect that it does not give space for younger scientists that could have new and revolutionary ideas. The theories that Einstein proposed at that time changed paradigms and helped other fields to evolve improving our understanding of the world we live in. I believe that we, as a scientific community (and by “we” I mean both young and well-established researchers) have to come up with new ways for peer-revision. A trend that has just started is the “open access” publishing in which the access to articles is free, easier and less political. Articles are peer-reviewed in a different way and published faster. This could be the answer to a better and faster system for peer revision with less politics – a kind of “Science 2.0”. It will not be an easy task to change the system, but something has to be done. There is too much politics in science right now and this affects a lot of good researchers that are emerging out there. Not just in peer revision for article publication but also to get funding for research. Many scientists are giving up since they cannot expose their ideas easily, there is too much bureaucracy – in general it takes 6 months to 1 year (sometimes even more) to get an article published from submission, peer revision to acceptance and print (if it is accepted by the first journal you sent it). Young fellows like me are starting their careers and are unknown with no connections to “clubs” or any politics that could help them publish their research and spread their ideas. I can tell by personal experience that it is not easy, but this is how the system works for now. I can only evoke others like me and say: Young scientists unite – let’s change the peer review system right now! It is time for a change!

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