Dr Fisher's casebook: A refereeing whirl


Dr Fisher's casebook: A refereeing whirl

My old friend Ken Macrae once suggested that we should abandon refereeing. All papers should be published, he said, but anonymously. This would mean that only the serious would publish. He proposed this some time ago; since then the rise of social media has shown that his argument was based on a complete misunderstanding. People will quite casually use a pseudonym to publish whatever nonsense pops into their heads. (As do I, of course, but I blame the editor of Significance.)

My inbox keeps being filled by invitations to present in distant parts of the globe, often at conferences of whose topics I know very little, and to submit papers to what appears to be an exponentially growing number of journals, ditto. A surgical colleague asked whether I knew of a suitable journal to which she could submit a paper which was hard to publish. Within a couple of weeks one had come my way, and within a few days her paper was accepted – for a fee, of course. Even online journals must be funded and, if they are open access, authors must pay.

A feature of many of these journals is that they assure me that they have rigorous peer review. My inbox also indicates how this might be achieved. An invitation to review arrives at least weekly. I decline most of them, though not all. How can I review far more papers than I write, or even get my name on? I estimate that it takes half a day to review a medical paper, much longer to review a statistical one. If I refereed everything I was offered I would do little else.

Many years ago I read a proposal for a (sadly fictional) wealthy man to slow down the speed of scientific and technological advance, thought to be dangerously fast. He was advised to use his money to set up a foundation for the advancement of science. He should invite all the world's most productive scientists to sit on the advisory board, so they would spend all their time reviewing the proposals of lesser talents rather than doing their own. This brilliant idea seems to have been adopted with enthusiasm by several publishers of multiple journals, sometimes with titles so general that they would appear willing to consider anything. (How about the International Journal of Business, Humanities and Technology? Perhaps I am being unfair: Nature is pretty broad.) These journals often promise rigorous refereeing, though as an author I sometimes wonder whether that is really an attraction.

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Journals may promise rigorous refereeing, but do they provide it? John Bohannon1 sent a spoof paper to a large sample of journals. The paper was deliberately designed to have obvious, disastrous methodological flaws and was sent from fictitious institutions. He had no difficulty getting it accepted by 157 out 255 journals (61.6%)! (He would then withdraw it; in one case this provoked a message of sympathy from the journal from someone bearing the wonderful name of Grace Groovy.)

So I have to be refereed, like it or not, and in return I have to referee for others. If a journal publishes my paper, it would be churlish to refuse to referee in return. If a funding body funds my research project, I can hardly refuse to review others for it. And with all the worthless journals exposed by John Bohannon about, real refereeing is worthwhile. The refereeing merry-go-round or carousel spins on and we must spin with it.

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