Peer Review

I am always excited to receive an invitation to peer review, as I see it not only a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, or to help transform chaff into wheat, but it is also an opportunity for me to mature in critical and comprehensive thinking, and to practice constructive criticism. It can be a lot of work when I have to delve into unfamiliar subject matter, review references, and the previous work of the authors; but typically it still not nearly as much work as went into the submission in the first place. An additional benefit is when I see how my observations match up with those of the other reviewers when the summary decision is sent.

During my PhD, one of my advisors asked me to submit some or our work to a journal even though I was not completely happy with the results, or convinced in its application. “Why submit this when I know I would reject it?” He answered sagely, “Without criticism the rejection will not come from people who have distance from our problem.” And sure enough, both of us were right. The paper was rejected, and the review comments were extremely useful. That was the first time I realized rejection is not always counter productive. That is why I really liked the idea behind the on-line journal Rejecta Mathematica, which unfortunately has only one issue in a seemingly rejected subspace of the world wide cobwebs.

Sure, sometimes peer review can fail due to grudges, or politics, or whatever nonscientific. I have heard of conference papers being rejected outright, and then submitted unmodified to another conference to win a best paper award. There are also papers with significant results sitting and waiting for a long time, only to be rejected for no apparent reason. But there are also plenty of crazy people believing that the Institution of Science™ is conspiring against them to marginalize their revolutionary ideas, c.f., The Journal of Theoretics. I remember when I looked at their inaugural issue in 1999. I was stunned such things could be put on the Internets and taken for Real Science©. I am happy to see they have closed shop.

Peer review can be outwardly thankless of course. My name will only appear as, “the anonymous reviewers who have substantially improved the quality of this manuscript.” I may get to list on my CV the journals and conferences for which I have served the peer review position; but I can’t say anything more specific. Regardless, I feel in a cost-benefits analysis that I reap just as much as I sow. Though frustrated I may get with overzealous notation, incomplete experimental descriptions, inadequate references and review of past work, poor grammar, illegible microscopic won’t-print-in-gray-scale figures, a lack of a coherent explanation of relevance, and the Word document format, peer review is as much good for the authors as it is for me.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who have helped improve this post.

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