Day: November 30, 2015

Peer Review Blues

I am really disillusioned by peer review today. No, it’s not my paper that got rejected. And no, it’s not the first time an incident like this happens.

I just got a notice that a paper I had reviewed for Prestigious Society Letters got editorially accepted for publication after 1st revision.

I reviewed the original manuscript but never saw the revision, although I said I wanted to see it (there is a check box to that effect).  The editor appended the full correspondence to today’s email, following the paper’s acceptance. I can also see online the full timeline of the requests to various referees, when they submitted their reports, etc. My gripe for today is nestled between what was written (the correspondence) and when it was written (the timeline).

I was Referee 1 and recommended transfer to another journal (Reputable Society Journal, same publisher as Prestigious Society Letters). I raised several points because of which I did not consider the paper to be suitable for Prestigious Society Letters. Referee 2, who reviewed at the same time as me, liked the paper and said it should be published in PSL.

The paper gets revised and resubmitted. I never saw the revision, and I am guessing (based on the timeline) that Referee 2 didn’t either.
The revised and resubmitted manuscript gets sent to a tie-breaker Referee 3, who agrees with me (i.e., Referee 1) that the paper is more suitable for a more specialized journal and should be transferred to RSJ.

Now, for mortals like myself, that would be the end of the review process in PSL. 

But no, not here, I am guessing because the lead senior author has the ability to throw his weight around, or something.

Let’s recap. After two rounds of review and Referee 3’s tie-breaker recommendation, basically 2 people are saying transfer the paper to RSJ and 1 is saying it’s OK for PSL.

I have had several papers in the same situation and this was always, 100% of the time, the end of it.  If it were my paper, I would have to transfer.
I have also had papers in PSL where 2 referees liked the paper but one didn’t, and it was still rejected more than 80% of the time, with words such as “the reviews have failed to converge after two rounds of review.” (Occasionally I appealed, but the appeal always found in favor of the original editorial decision. These days I don’t waste my time and go elsewhere.)

What happens next is infuriating. The editor apparently didn’t like Referee 3’s report. The next day,  the paper gets sent out to Referee 4, who eventually says the paper is OK, that the authors had responded to my comments adequately, and the paper should be accepted in PSL. The editor happily obliges.

Let’s summarize what we have learned about the peer review process based on this anecdote:

  1. If you are deemed a big-enough name, your paper gets reviewed in prestigious venues, bringing in as many new referees as needed through as many rounds of review as needed until the number of those who like the paper is at least equal to the number of those who don’t, at which point the paper is accepted. 
  2. If you are plebs, all the referees have to be convinced the paper is great in no more than two rounds of review, otherwise the paper is rejected. 

Not cool, PSL, not cool. I review a ton for you, but it seems that I should stop wasting my time.