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Interesting Reviewers

Jim Crow has published a perspective in Genetics on his favorite reviewers from 1952-1956 when he was associate editor of the journal. He prefaces it by writing:

As far as I can ascertain, the editorial correspondence from that period is lost, so I am writing this from memory. Naturally, my recollections of events half a century ago are fallible, but I think I remember the essence. The identity of reviewers was confidential, so some of what follows is a breach of that confidence. I do not know whether there is a statute of limitations, but it seems reasonable that after half a century some revelations are permissible. I have, however, not mentioned the authors in most cases.

I’ll leave it up to our in house ethicist to say whether this is an acceptable practice. Most of the characters are deceased, so I don’t think they’ll be complaining to the current editorial board. I’m just a sucker for this historical stuff. I’ve reproduced a few choice quotes below the fold. This is more anecdotal than anything else, but it does allow us to peer into the lives of our academic predecessors.

On Sewall Wright, who made sure to check your math:

Sewall Wright was a particularly thorough reviewer. When he received a manuscript for review, he typically dropped other activities and went over the copy in great detail. Usually this involved his redoing all the calculations and reanalyzing the data. Alex [RPM: managing editor Alexander Brink] and I were convinced that he was spending too much time on other people’s data, at the price of not getting his own more important work done. For that reason, we employed him sparingly, only where his unique insights were essential.

But sometimes Wright’s services were necessary. He could even be impressed if the work was exceptional:

My final example again involves Wright as reviewer. In 1953 the Genetics Society of America met in Wisconsin and a young Japanese mathematical geneticist was in attendance. He had with him a manuscript (KIMURA 1954) that he had written during the long sea voyage across the Pacific. He showed that, even in an infinite population, random fluctuation of selection intensities can mimic the effect of random allele-frequency drift in a finite population. Kimura’s diffusion equation was bewilderingly complex, but he found a transformation that converted it into the simple equation for heat conduction, whose solution is well known and familiar to every physics student.

We gave the manuscript to Wright to review. Wright was not given to verbal effusion, but his review was closer to unequivocal praise than any that he had done earlier. It was the beginning of Wright’s life-long admiration of Kimura’s work; and Kimura’s first GENETICS reviewer was his idol, Sewall Wright. Soon after, they both moved to Wisconsin, to the delight of all three of us.

On knowing about your equipment:

The third manuscript involved neutron radiation. In this case, the astute reviewer, Aaron Novick, knew enough about the physics in the author’s laboratory to be aware of gamma contamination in the neutron source and to adjust the dosimetry accordingly. The data now fitted the expectations much more closely and the manuscript was much improved. The author was both chagrined not to notice this error and thankful for the reviewer’s insight.

On the rift between Sturtevant and Dobzhansky (you can read about it here):

My fifth example involves the well-known mutual dislike between Sturtevant and Dobzhansky (e.g., NOVITSKI 2005). Nevertheless, in all my contacts with both men over the years, and these were extensive, I never heard either of them say anything derogatory about the other, although both of them were aware that I knew of the rift.

But on one occasion Sturtevant did make his feelings known, although with characteristic subtlety. GENETICS had received two manuscripts. One was by a young cytogeneticist and the other by Dobzhansky. Sturtevant reviewed both. His reply was essentially as follows: The first paper is careful work by a serious, deserving young scientist, but it does not quite measure up to GENETICS standards. I say, reject with regret. The Dobzhansky paper must surely be published. But it is too long for its content and generally overstated. I say, accept with regret.