…. but mangoes are out of syllabus!!

The father of a primary school kid went to his school teacher and said, “ You failed my son in maths? He knew by heart everything that you taught. But you asked a question out of syllabus.”

“No, I didn’t. I only asked whatever was taught in the class.”

“No, he says you taught them sums of purchasing and selling apples, but you asked questions on purchasing and selling mangoes!! How can the kids answer what they have not been taught?”

I am sure you will read this as a joke and would leave it at that. But this is precisely how highly educated people of science often behave. I will relate only a couple of incidents although things like this happen much more frequently.

A few months ago, I communicated a manuscript to BBS (Behavioral and Brain Sciences). This journal publishes many thought provoking articles in the area of psychology, cognition and neuro- behavioural studies. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading many of them quite often. BBS has an impact factor of 15 and odd, if impact factors make any sense. The title of my article was “The evolutionary psychology of scientific publishing: cost-benefit optimization of players in the game”. The article, as the title itself reveals, was about the psychological, behavioural and cognitive aspects of editors’ and reviewers’ decision making. It analysed how optimization principles of behavioural ecology explains the origin of commonly observed biases in peer reviews and editorial decisions. The behavioural and cognitive principles I used in the analysis included many that have been highlighted by articles in BBS itself. I used behavioural optimization models and cited behavioural optimization papers from BBS itself along with others. I also used the principle of “rationalization” again inspired by an excellent article in BBS itself.

I expected a rejection without review for this article and that is precisely what happened. The reason I expected a rejection without review was spelt out in the article itself. Rejection of this article was a testable prediction of the hypothesis in the article itself. So I was glad to receive a rejection, which was very much in support of my hypothesis. But the “reason” given for the rejection was very interesting. It gave a stronger support to the hypothesis in the paper which I had not expected. The email I received from the editor Prof Paul Bloom said “We consider submissions that bear on broad theoretical issues within neuroscience and cognitive science. A discussion of biases in peer review just isn’t a good fit with us.” This is precisely the same phenomenon – mathematics might be the same but mangoes are not in the syllabus. The underlying cognitive processes might be the same, but the example to which you are applying them is not of our interest. The rejection was not based on my analysis being flawed or inadequate. It didn’t say anything about the psychological, cognitive content of the paper. It pretended that there was nothing psychological, behavioural or cognitive in it and it only discussed peer review biases. The article preprint is available here ( https://ecoevorxiv.org/nvpe2/ ) and the editorial correspondence here (https://drive.google.com/open?id=1msSyCy_G5pzxIYhjGd4n0E0k62e15JQB.). Readers are free to decided whether the reason or justification given for rejection makes any sense.

Prof Paul Bloom was kind enough this time to allow me publish the correspondence. In an earlier interaction he had objected to make public our correspondence on rejection of an article which was about how alterations in interactions of neuropeptides in the brain that have evolved for foraging optimization are responsible for the prevalent global obesity epidemic. Paul had rejected this paper saying that BBS does not publish many articles on the same topic. In the previous year BBS had published an article on obesity and this was the reason given for rejecting our manuscript. Interestingly within a few months of rejecting our manuscript another one on the same topic was accepted and I happened to receive a call for commentary on that article!! So BBS does not publish more than one article in the same field was obviously not true. Our article on foraging optimization and obesity was published later elsewhere which is available here ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31593208 ) and the rejection related correspondence here ( https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/17KZFBW27HokySoZ2gMo1D4m4nu_mT4Kw ).

This is not to blame any editor or journal. This is an interesting behavioural phenomenon. Every editor works in a set of constraints and the cost-benefit optimization under those constraints decides how editorial decisions are made. But we all pretend as well as believe that editorial decisions are based on the merit of the manuscript alone. Further by well documented principles of psychology, the contextual behavioural reasons behind the act are not completely known even to the actor. This is a well demonstrated phenomenon in cognitive science. The actor does not know the true reasons behind a decision to act. But if the context demands so, one or more reasons are invented to justify the act. A decision is not based on a set of consciously perceived reasons. The decision comes first and “reasons” come later. BBS itself has published excellent reviews on this phenomenon. If this is a fundamental psychological phenomenon, obviously BBS editors are not an exception. They have a set of reasons for rejecting a manuscript which they themselves are not fully aware. But they are compelled to give some reason so they hunt for one. Fortunately or unfortunately hardly anybody challenges the reason behind the editorial decision. So they can get away by giving illogical or self-contradicting reasons. I did not challenge the editorial decision to reject, but I did challenge the “reason” given with obvious evidence that it was not true. I did not challenge it out of anger or frustration triggered by rejection but because I wanted to probe the editor’s behaviour a little more.

Hopefully the editors of BBS, being psychologists themselves, are in a position to understand the behavioural analysis behind editorial processes and therefore won’t take this as a personal criticism. What interests me is the fact that a person follows the same behavioural patterns even after knowing that it is driven by some evolved subconscious mechanisms. But I don’t believe in behavioural determinism. We do have the ability to consciously control our behaviour, which journal editors certainly have, but currently there is no incentive for doing so. Only if the editorial process is made completely transparent, there will be a pressure on editors to be more responsible, logical, consistent and perhaps somewhat honest in justifying their decisions. Biases in scientific publishing will substantially reduce if not eliminated by this single measure. I have written earlier about how transparency in the editorial process can be brought in (See the preprint https://ecoevorxiv.org/nvpe2/ and my earlier blog articles: https://milindwatve.home.blog/2019/06/09/why-is-transparency-in-the-review-process-needed/ ; https://milindwatve.home.blog/2019/06/04/scientific-publishing-can-a-small-man-like-me-revolutionize-the-field/ ). If we do so, the phenomenon of “mangoes are not in the syllabus” will be seen less commonly.

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