Progress in the Time of Corona

April 10, 2020

One of the thorniest issues that we will face in the now, and in the coming months, is progress. Scientific progress, career progress, etc. I touched on this a few days ago. It has many dimensions. I may blog a lot about this, fair warning.

Several days (weeks?) ago, we had a few rounds on Twitter related to altering our peer review standards for manuscript evaluation and acceptance. It’s a pretty simple question for the day. Is the Time of Corona such that we need to alter this aspect of our professional scientific behavior? Why? To what end? What are the advantages and for whom? Are there downsides to doing so?

As a review, unneeded for most of my audience, scientific papers are the primary output, deliverable good, work product, etc of the academic scientist. Most pointedly, the academic scientist funded by the taxpayer. Published papers. To get a paper published in an academic journal, the scientists who did the work and wrote the paper submit it for consideration to a journal. Whereupon an editor at the journal decides either to reject it outright (colloquially a “desk reject”) or to send it to scientific peers (other academics who are likewise trying to get their papers published) for review. Typically 3 peers, although my most usual journals accept 2 as a minimum these days, and editors can use more if necessary. The peers examine the paper and make recommendations to the editor as to whether it should be accepted as is (rarely happens), rejected outright (fairly common) or reconsidered after the authors make some changes to the manuscript. This latter is a very usual outcome and I don’t think I’ve ever had a paper ultimately published that did not get there without making a lot of changes in response to what peers had to say about it.

Peer comments can range from identifying typographical errors to demanding that the authors conduct more experiments, occasionally running to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense (counting staff time) and months to years of person-effort. These are all couched as “this is necessary before the authors should be allowed to publish this work”. Of course, assigned reviewers rarely agree in every particular and ultimately the editor has to make a call as to what is reasonable or unreasonable with respect to apparent demands from any particular reviewer.

But this brings us to the Time of Corona. We are, most of us, mostly or totally shut down. Our institutions do not want us, or our staff members, in the labs doing work as usual. Which means that conducting new research studies for a manuscript that we have submitted for review is something between impossible and very, very, very unlikely.

So. How should we, as professionals in a community, respond to this Time of Corona? Should we just push the pause button on scientific publication, just as we are pushing the pause button on scientific data generation? Ride it out? Refuse to alter our stance on whether more data are “required for publication” and just accept that we’re all going to have to wait for this to be over and for our labs to re-start?

This would be consistent with a stance that, first, our usual demands for more work are actually valid and second, that we should be taking this shutdown seriously, meaning accepting that THINGS ARE DIFFERENT now.

I am seeing, however, some sentiments that we should be altering our standards, specifically because of the lab shutdowns. That this is what is different, but that it is still essential to be able to publish whatever (?) manuscripts we have ready to submit.

This is fascinating to me. After all, I tend to believe that each and every manuscript I submit is ready to be accepted for publication. I don’t tend to do some sort of strategy of holding back data in hand, or nearly completed, so that in response to the inevitable demands for more, we can respond with “Yes, you reviewers were totally right and now we have included new experiments. Thank you for your brilliant suggestion!”. People do this. I may have done it once or twice but I don’t feel good about it. 🙂

I believe that when I am reviewing manuscripts, I try to minimize my demands for new data and more work. My review stance is to try to first understand what the reviewers are setting out to study, what they have presented data on, and what conclusions or claims they are trying to make. Any of the three can be adjusted if I think the manuscript falls short. They can more narrowly constrain their stated goals, they can add more data and/or they can alter their claims to meet the data they have presented. Any of those are perfectly valid responses in my view. It doesn’t have to be “more data are required no matter what”.

I may be on a rather extreme part of the distribution on this, I don’t know. But I do experience editors and reviewers who seem to ultimately behave in a similar way on both my manuscripts and those manuscripts to which I’ve contributed a review. So I think, that probably my fellow scientists that have my ~core skepticism about the necessity for peer review demands for more, more, more are probably not so exercised about this issue. It is more the folks who are steeped in the understanding that this is the way peer review of manuscripts should work, by default and in majority of cases, who are starting to whinge.

I’m kinda amused. I would be delighted if the Time of Corona made some of these Stockholm Syndrome victims within science think a little harder about the necessity of their culture of demands for more, more, more data no matter what.

2 Responses to “Progress in the Time of Corona”

  1. Emaderton3 Says:

    What about those of us resubmitting grants to save our jobs that cannot do all of the experiments???


  2. Grumpy Says:

    I love this blog, but you keep using phrases like “science” when you should be saying “my field and related ones”.

    Reviewer demands for more experiments are pretty rare in the physical sciences, at least the subfields that I am familiar with. It is fairly common to request some additional data analysis or modification to claims, but typically when I review a paper I assume the experimental apparatus has been torn down and no more data will ever be taken.

    I suggest you and your colleagues grow a thicker skin and just stand firm on your work. You can always throw the reviewers a bone by altering your claims/conclusions and adding some straightforward data analysis. And probably that will make your paper better (or at least not worse) without much effort.

    But if you are proud enough of the work to post a preprint and submit for publication, chances are it’s a pretty good paper and you shouldn’t bow down to the reviewers like this. And you should start refusing to submit to (and review for) editors that enable this crap.

    Of course it’s easy for me to say as an outsider. But just as with preprints, I think this is an area my field does right and your field will eventually come around.


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