Peer review is merely advisory to the decision maker

November 2, 2021

How many times have you heard another academic scientist say “I rejected that manuscript…“. Or, “I accepted that manuscript….“? This is usually followed by some sort of criticism of an outcome for that manuscript that is inconsistent with their views on what the disposition should be. Most often ” I rejected that manuscript…but it was accepted for publication anyway, how dare they??!!??”

We somewhat less often hear someone say they “rejected” or “funded” a grant proposal…but we do hear disappointed applicants claim that one reviewer “killed my grant”.

This is, in general, inaccurate.

All, and I mean ALL, of the review input on NIH grants that takes place from receipt and referral through to the Advisory Council input (and whatever bean counting tetris puzzle fitting happens post-Council) is merely advisory to the Director. The IC Director is the deciderer.

Similarly, all peer review input to manuscripts is merely advisory to the Editor. In this case, there may be some variability in whether it is all being done at the Editor in Chief level, to what extent she farms that out to the handling sub-Editors (Associate, Senior, Reviewing, etc) or whether there is a more democratic discussion amongst a group of deciding editors.

What is clear, however, is that the review conducted by peers is merely advisory.

It can be the case that the deciding editor (or editorial process) sides with a 2-1 apparent vote. It could be siding with a 1-2 vote. Or overruling a 0-3 vote. Either for or against acceptance.

This is the process that we’ve lived with for decades. Scientific generations.

Yet we still have people expressing this bizarre delusion that they are the ones “accepting” or “rejecting” manuscripts in peer review. Is this a problem? Would it be better, you ask, if we all said “I recommended against accepting it”?

Yes. It would be better. So do that.

This post is brought to you by a recent expression of outrage that a paper was rejected despite (an allegation of) positive-sounding comments from the peer reviewers. This author was so outraged that they contacted some poor fool reviewer who had signed their name to the review. Outside of the process of review, the author demanded this reviewer respond. Said reviewer apparently sent a screen shot of their recommendation for, well, not rejection.

This situation then usually goes into some sort of outrage about how the editorial decision making process is clearly broken, unethical, dishonest, political….you know the drill. Bad.

For some reason we never hear those sorts of complaints from the authors when an editor has overruled the disfavorable reviewers and issued an acceptance for publication.

No, in those cases we hear from the outraged peer reviewer. Who also, on occasion, has been know to rant about how the editorial decision making process is clearly broken, unethical, dishonest, political….you know the drill. Bad.

All because we have misconstrued the role of peer review.

It is advisory. That is all.

2 Responses to “Peer review is merely advisory to the decision maker”

  1. rando Says:

    This is a somewhat unrelated question but I figured you would know. Are there any studies looking at the correlation between having work published in high impact factor journals and RO1 success? What percentage of investigators with RO1’s have a Nature/Cell/Science paper for instance? Or is there a correlation between number of publications and RO1 success? Any correlation with publishing at all?


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    I am unfamiliar with any data on that.


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