So there’s an article that a fair number of people have gotten all het up about in The Scientist which criticizes peer reivew. I’ll state for the record that I agree with the article in that the review process needs to be much faster, and more people need to be reviewing (the burden is too great for some people). But I’m puzzled by this (italics mine):
Twenty years ago, David Kaplan of the Case Western Reserve University had a manuscript rejected, and with it came what he calls a “ridiculous” comment. “The comment was essentially that I should do an x-ray crystallography of the molecule before my study could be published,” he recalls, but the study was not about structure. The x-ray crystallography results, therefore, “had nothing to do with that,” he says. To him, the reviewer was making a completely unreasonable request to find an excuse to reject the paper.
Kaplan says these sorts of manuscript criticisms are a major problem with the current peer review system, particularly as it’s employed by higher-impact journals. Theoretically, peer review should “help [authors] make their manuscript better,” he says, but in reality, the cutthroat attitude that pervades the system results in ludicrous rejections for personal reasons–if the reviewer feels that the paper threatens his or her own research or contradicts his or her beliefs, for example–or simply for convenience, since top journals get too many submissions and it’s easier to just reject a paper than spend the time to improve it. Regardless of the motivation, the result is the same, and it’s a “problem,” Kaplan says, “that can very quickly become censorship.”
“It’s become adversarial,” agrees molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, who co-chaired the National Institutes of Health 2008 working group to revamp peer review at the agency. With the competition for shrinking funds and the ever-pervasive “publish or perish” mindset of science, “peer review has slipped into a situation in which reviewers seem to take the attitude that they are police, and if they find [a flaw in the paper], they can reject it from publication.”
In my experience, both being reviewed and as a reviewer, I haven’t encountered this attitude (the only times I have, the reviewers signed their names to the review, so anonymous review can’t be blamed).
Is it really that bad, because I don’t know anyone who is that petty. And neither I nor my colleagues are saints, not by a long shot. I can see someone getting hung up on a method, technique, or analysis, and appearing unreasonable, especially when he uses that approach in his own work: if he didn’t feel strongly about it, he probably wouldn’t do it. But that’s not tanking an article for competitive advantage. That’s offering an honest criticism (if perhaps unreasonable and fucking stupid). I also won’t even pretend to claim that reviewers are objective; of course, we’re not. But that isn’t necessarily ‘competitive’, just human.
It seems to me that this could be either an urban legend or an isolated incident blown out of proportion. Alternatively, this is kinda like watching porn: lots of people have done so, but no one will actually admit it. There are issues with peer review, but I think spiking papers isn’t a problem.