01 March 2017

The value of editors

There is a line of thought among some scientists – and it is not a short line among a small fraction of scientists – that pre-publication peer review is useless, reviewers are useless, and editors are useless. Thus, journals are useless.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde was brave enough to post one of his old rejection letters this on Twitter (text follows images). Albrecht prefaced this saying, “Lessons learned as a young and arrogant graduate student.”

Canadian Journal of Zoology
17 April 1997
File Number: Y1150

Mr. A.I. Schulte-Hostedde

Department of Zoology
Umversity of Guelph
Guelph. Ontario NlG 2W1

Dear Mr. Schulte-Hostedde:

Subject: Patterns of Association in a Temperate Rodent Community

We have sent your paper out for re-review. Neither reviewer has been convinced by your rebuttal and as a consequence we have decided to reject your paper. We are returning the paper to you.

Neither reviewer has provided comments for transmission to the authors. Let me, however, add some comments of my own, since I detect that you may not understand the nature of the review process. We try to select reviewers who are knowledgeable and objective and who understand the role of the Canadian Journal of Zoology as a generalist journal. They are volunteers who support the discipline by committing some of their time to helping authors get their work into an acceptable form. In your case both reviewers had a number of substantive suggestions for improvement. We indicated that the paper was unlikely to be accepted without major revisions.

Your revisions were anything but major. So far as I can determine, they consisted of changing the title and adding a short section on predation. Under such circumstances we sometimes return the manuscript directly to the authors, asking them to try again. But in this case, there was an extensive rebuttal, and we thought that the reviewers should see that. The reviewers have, as I say, not been convinced, and they are both deeply disappointed by the nature and tone of your response. To quote one of them “if the authors do not respect the reviews I do not know why they would want to publish their research in the Canadian Journal of Zoology nor do I understand why the editors would accept it.”

You are just beginning your career. Let me take off my editorial hat and, as a person who has been publishing in the field for more than 40 years, offer some advice. Of the approximately 200 papers which I have published, only two were accepted without change. Of the remainder, I have invariably benefited from the advice of the reviewers. I think that you would be wise to regard the reviewers not so much as gate-keepers, but as persons who volunteer helpful advice.

Yours sincerely,

K.G. Davey/A.S.M. Saleuddin

You know what? This was written by people who care both about the scientific enterprise, and the professional development of the author. This is mentoring. This is humane. You are far less likely to get this sort of interaction from posting draft manuscripts on pre-print servers and hoping people click “Like” bottons afterwards.

I know that this is an unusual, dare I say, exceptional bit of editorial advice. But if more editors worked like this, fewer people who would question the value of journals.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

Well, yes.

But at the same time, not so much. It's all very well for this editor to write " I think that you would be wise to regard the reviewers not so much as gate-keepers, but as persons who volunteer helpful advice". But we have all been through experience where gatekeeper has been exactly the role of the reviewers -- and I have had reviews that give the impression that the reviewer sees his role as essentially a combative one.

There are good and helpful reviews, and I have benefitted from several of them. But let's not pretend that that is the universal, or even necessarily the prevalent, experience.