I am happy to receive a rejection to my manuscript. I wrote a MS about the biases in peer reviews, how some basic principles of human behaviour create these biases and suggested a behaviour based system design for scientific publishing that would minimize, if not eliminate biases. Anticipating that criticising peer reviews would create controversies, I communicated this MS to the Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI). After almost one year I received a rejection. One of the main reasons for the rejection is that this is not a controversial issue at all. “The idea that peer review is flawed and creates bad incentives is widely held by academics.”
This is unique experience. The paper is rejected because the peer reviewers agree that peer review is itself a bad idea. The paper is rejected because peer reviewers agree with one of my main arguments. They do contradict and strongly disagree with some of my other arguments (and still say that there is no controversial idea in this). I must say that this is one of the rare instances of a thorough and thoughtful peer review I received. I don’t agree with all that the reviewers say, which is fine. But I certainly have much to learn from what they say and this is not a very common experience. Out of the nearly 100 peer reviewed papers I published (which means those many acceptances along with a greater number of rejections) between 20-30 times I thought I received comments that would really improve the quality and rigor of the paper. This rejection is certainly one of them. This means that at least some times peer reviews rally help. The percentage in my experience was about 10 %.
Whether now I would communicate the paper to some other peer reviewed journal or not, I haven’t decided. But I am not too keen for obvious reasons. If everyone agrees that peer reviews are weird and flawed, why should we consider only peer reviewed publications as science? Peer reviews actually have no relevance to science. No doubt they have a relevance to making a career in science because there is a ritual of listing and counting peer reviewed papers. Every selection, appointment, promotion etc has to go through this ritual. Now I am not in the race of making a bright career. So I suffer no loss by getting my papers rejected.
But a curious observer in me is not dead. It won’t be until I remain cognitively healthy (by medical definitions). So I have a number of questions. If the flawedness of the peer review system is universally accepted and there is no controversy about it, why do we still depend so much on it? If the main pillar of science, that is publication of the outcome, is so flawed why we fail to see that it makes the entire field of science flawed? Why the attempts to change the system are so half hearted, ephemeral and almost always a failure until now? While new fields like behaviour based policy making are thriving, why don’t we apply them to science publishing? I did my own behavioural analysis of different players in scientific publishing and designed an alternative system. It is not necessary that everyone agrees with it. But doesn’t it deserve a debate? Shouldn’t my ideas be published in order to generate a debate? Why are people of science running away from addressing the fundamental flaws in the field?
Perhaps I know the answer. There is a in-power group which decides the protocols of science publishing as well as funding. The group that already enjoys the power does not suffer by the flaws. People who actually suffer by the unfair systems have no say in changing the system. This is a vicious cycle and the powerful people of science are either dumb enough not to see it or they actually want the flaws to perpetuate in order to retain their power. I am open to both the possibilities. If there is a third one that you can think of kindly let me know.
Here are the links where you can access my original manuscript along with one of the reviewers who has directly commented on it.
Another reviewer’s comments are on this link.
I leave it open for the readers to make their own opinions. Any comments are also welcome.