Peer review quality, acceptance and rejection

Two papers from my group got published this week itself. And I am amazed at the range of peer review quality experienced. I had written earlier about the experience with Current Science. The same manuscript, with marginal refinement was accepted by PeerJ and got published this week (https://peerj.com/articles/11150.pdf). Although acceptance makes the authors happy, the peer review quality was equally disappointing as the Cur Sci experience. Two good things about this journal are that they make the peer review public and they ask authors’ feedback. I wrote a feedback that although the paper was accepted, the peer review quality was disappointing. But our earlier experience with this journal was good. A paper published earlier in this journal had critical and balanced review. It is just too common that there is large variance in the peer review quality of the same journal.

The other experience was diametrically opposite. Our work with farmers near Tadoba got published yesterday in the journal Conservation Biology, a leading journal in this field ( http://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13746). This piece of work I count among the top 5 of my lifetime. The peer review of this manuscript was one of the most rigorous peer reviews I have seen in my life. The manuscript was difficult to review since it involved game theory, agriculture, wild life, human behaviour and social science. In addition we had done some non-conventional things. We did not pre-plan the methods. Obviously we could not take a prior ethics approval of the institutional committees. Ethics was addressed by field workers and farmers from time to time. We allowed the methods to evolve and the farmer participants contributed their thinking to the evolving methods. The farmers also interpreted the results their own way and we included their thinking in interpreting the results. So farmers were mid way between the subject of research and contributors to research.  Most important, none of us had any formal training in social science research and we did it only using common sense and the need of the time as felt in the field. I could perceive many potential problems of violating research norms. But we kept everything transparent. Did not pretend or hide anything.

Three reviewers responded, each one coming from a different field. So editors had carefully taken care of the multidisciplinary nature of the work. All the three appreciated the central idea as well as our contextually flexible ways as novel and relevant but at the same time raised a number of issues about the details. For addressing all of them three of the authors had to work hard for days on end. This was the most rigorous revision of my life. But everything being of high intellectual quality there was a deep satisfaction. In places they pointed out our weak points in the work. We responded admitting that this side of the work was weak but it remained weak for such and such reasons, which they seemed to accept. They had looked at possibilities beyond this paper and we responded to it from which the path to take the work forward was almost worked out. I want to write about this experience separately and in substantial details. So am reserving the details for now. Let me say here that I am deeply satisfied with this review quality although it was hell of hard work involved in revising.

At a later stage we faced a problem with this paper. The journal specifies many norms or writing style one of which was that all results are to be written in the past tense. We had results of modelling along with empirical work. There was no problem in reporting empirical work. Model results are funny. Simulations and parameter specific results can be expressed well in the past tense, but generalizations and predictions lose their meaning in past tense. The language editor helped us substantially in improving grammar, reducing word count without compromising on content etc. But modelling results in past tense was posing a problem. “Two plus two is four” has a meaning which is not captured by “two plus two was four”. The editor obviously having a superior knowledge of English grammar than us, we did not argue much but made suggestions. Ultimately this section became a hybrid of past and present. I suspect some meaning might have been compromised, but hope that the reader is not at complete loss. Barring this, the experience was a life time amazingly good.

Six years ago the same journal had rejected another paper of ours. The experience that time was that two of three reviewers were critical but positive, the third one was not critical about specific issues but perhaps our findings were not convenient for his stand and his beliefs. We could satisfy two reviewers but not the third one. The editor ultimately rejected our paper. That time also, the quality of reviews was mostly good. Overall, I feel reviews are like random samples. At times you get bad quality reviews even in good journal; at times good quality rejections, and at times bad quality acceptances, but very rarely challenging, thoughtful, balanced and rigorous reviews. I feel these rare events are the ones which maintain the quality of science.

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