The paucity of research on research:

Research is an interesting phenomenon in human evolution. I am not separating biological evolution from cultural evolution here, because it is essentially impossible to segregate the two. But there are multiple reasons to believe that research evolved with us. It is there in human nature right from our hunter gatherer life. Today, mainstream research is bound by a fairly rigid structure for hosting, funding and publishing research. This has no doubt boosted research output. But do we “understand” research? I have serious doubts.

Successful researchers do not necessarily “understand” research. Just as an experienced cricketer can take a fine catch with amazing skills, but he need not understand which rules of physics govern the trajectory of the ball and which motor neurons he needs to activate to instruct the right muscles to enable the dive and catch. Physics knows the forces acting on the ball fairly well, but our understanding of nerve muscle coordination is still quite primitive, and limping to progressing.

The analogy is quite good for research.  We often develop a fair amount of understanding of the subject of investigation like the physics of the forces acting on the ball, but have little understanding of the how the mind of an individual researcher works and how the community of researchers interact. Not knowing something is fair. But that is not how things are. The community of researchers pretends to be what it is not. Also the way science is published is not the way it is actually done. In a research lab, more often than not, things develop rather chaotically, new findings are often serendipitous, experimental work does not always progress in a logical sequence. Often one gets an interesting result first and then wonders how it came about. Still when a research paper is written, it is written as if everything was logical and sequential. Not only that, if a researcher does not pretend that everything was done in a logical sequence, he/she is unable to publish it.

This pretence (if it is better to avoid using the word hypocrisy) is so common that researchers themselves do not know at what stage they start the self-deception game. They make themselves believe that they are logical. But this is not how research actually progresses. Research progresses through complex behavioural, psychological and social interactions that have been little studied. Hardly any one seems to be interested in studying and documenting them. It is ironic that researchers themselves are not interested in research on research.

Formally there is a branch of science called meta-science or science of science. There is a Wikipedia page on Metascience and it cites some landmark papers in this area. There are a handful of good researchers in this field. Intermittently they have published good papers in journals like Nature – Science. Science organizations and leading journals have intermittently worried about how to improve doing science and publishing science. But reading through this literature my feel is that they are too superficial. They are not yet addressing the human behavioural principles that govern science. They haven’t yet asked how these principles evolved. They are still pretending to be very ‘logical’.

I was fortunate that I took a late and backdoor entry into science. My science training began after having completed my degrees in science. I had no aspirations of doing a PhD. I got into it only because I saw an opportunity to stay in a wildlife rich forest for a few years, with stipend! That was my motivation, not PhD. After PhD I did not do a post doc anytime. I liked teaching and was also lucky to get a teacher’s job quite quickly. I realized in my first few years of teaching that research was the best tool in science education and undergraduates the best persons to do research. That was my back door entry into the field of research. Not having followed the routine path of research career, I always looked at the research field as an outside observer mainly triggered by my own curiosity about how the field works, than by any aspiration of making a bright and successful research career. I discovered eventually that this field was a highly fascinating subject to study the principles of behaviour. The researcher community was more fascinating to observe and experiment on than the elephant social life, multispecies interactions or the social insect colonies that I was fascinated by.  So I have seen things that the most people within the community haven’t.

Of late I have started writing about it. One paper was published a couple of years ago and a second one I just communicated to a journals and also posted on preprint. This work is very preliminary, but the whole field itself is preliminary. I know that this manuscripts will face a very hard time getting published for reasons I have spelt out in the manuscript itself. But here is an interesting situation. If my manuscript gets rejected, it strengthens the hypothesis states in the paper. If it is accepted, it means it is agreeable. Does that make it right or wrong? You decide.

The link to the paper published in the Journal of genetics is Here, and the one to the latest manuscript on pre-print Here.

A teacher never dies:

I have been a science teacher all my life and the day I left IISER-Pune, my formal career as a science teacher came to an end. IISER was not a good environment for a science teacher anyway, but that apart, I am surprised that I am not missing my classrooms very much. Feeling good on the one hand that I won’t have to correct papers anymore, which I never liked, I also won’t be teaching in a classroom which I loved all my life. I still love that but it is strange that I am not missing much when I no more do that!

Perhaps I know the reason. A number of things that I did as a teacher continue even today. One is the katta. Now there is a katta at home every Saturday night, post dinner (no…no…. we don’t serve dinner. You have to have your dinner and then come). Interestingly some of the very first generation katta members, who are now well settled in their profession, have joined once again. Very soon, I believe their next generation will join. We have a more varied group now ranging from 12th entrants to grandmas, academicians to businessmen, students and housewives. First year collegians and their parents become katta members together.  So katta isn’t dead, it has expanded.

Farmers’ meeting at Wadala Tukum, 30th June 2019.

The classroom is also still there, though less frequent. Now the class is attended by farmers, tribals and illiterates. Last week we had a meeting with a group of farmers that I have been working with for the past many years. Until the last meeting with them, I was a professor, with substantial research funding. Unlike most social science or agriculture researchers, my farmers are not my ‘subjects’ of research. They are my research partners, colleagues and collaborators. Over the last few years an interesting chemistry had been built between me representing a research institute, an active local NGO called Paryavaran Mitra and its insightful social workers, Poorva Joshi of Bioconcepts Pune and a group of over 70 farmers. Now only the research institute has backed out. The rest of the group remains the same. A few years ago we started with the spirit that let us study and understand our problems ourselves and seek solutions.

Although the intention was to build a spirit of working together, I always had some doubts in my mind. I belonged to an elite class of scientists and professors in a prestigious institute, whether I liked it or not. I brought funding for the research. In fact, because of the funding we could organize lunch at the farmers’ meetings. Officially farmers were the ‘beneficiaries’ of the funded project (although I don’t like the word) and they were getting the due benefits. I thought that majority of farmers might be coming because they see those benefits. By our principles we, the researchers, are trying to create a spirit of working together, facilitating collective intelligence, community governance and so on. But that might just be our perception. Farmers might simply be coming because they get free lunch, some money or other benefits at the end.

When I resigned from IISER, the funding ended. IISER took a very strange decision to continue utilizing my grants by appoint another principal investigator on the project. This is not the norm in the field of science. This was only a move to channelize money elsewhere. Research projects are researcher centred, the institute only hosts them. The institute has no rights to appoint a new investigator on an already running project, without even asking the consent of the original investigator who wrote the project proposal and mobilized the grants. But big people of science don’t need any norms. Whatever they wish is the rule, whatever they do is the procedure. The fact relevant here is only that now I was left with no funding.

Last week right at the beginning of the farmers’ meeting I told everyone that I have no money in hand. Now I can’t give any ‘benefit’ to anyone. Your work will not have any remuneration that we used to give from the project funding. Now you have to make a decision. Do we continue the work without any money or do we stop the project here? This was the acid test. My doubts whether the farmers are participating out of a spirit of co-working or they only come to get the ‘benefit’ would have been clear in no time.

And then came the biggest pleasant surprise. The moment I explained that we have no more funding and asked them whether they wanted to continue working, without a millisecond delay 80 hands were thrown in air in unanimity to say, nothing will stop us. We will continue working together. What I could read on those raised hands was, “We are not here because we get some money. We are here because we discuss our problems here. Someone listens to us and tries to understand us. He says let us all study the problems, try to understand and seek solutions. He doesn’t pretend to be a messiah; doesn’t give us any magic wand solutions, but only says let us work out our solutions together. This is what we come here for. Not because we get some free lunch and some money”.

I can see big parallels with my interaction with students throughout my teaching career. I never promised them good grades and further admission to best Institutes or good career opportunities. I interacted with students with a promise of doing good science, opening up new questions and addressing them. I never promised answers to their questions but said let us find ways to address them. I am not here to answer your question. I am here to share your questions and share the efforts to investigate and seek an answer. The classroom and the farmers’ group are not different in any way.

The response that let us continue working together, we don’t care whether there is funding or not, is the best reward that a science teacher can ever get in life, the true Nobel for a scientist. And here lies the difference. I am tempted to compare the response of farmers to that of students when they learnt that I was leaving and that I won’t have funding anymore. They were more worried about their incomplete degree and their career than about the problems that we were investigating. I feel the illiterate farmers are better researchers than the top grade Masters and PhDs in science.

Farmers have given me another assurance. The science teacher in me hasn’t died and will not die.

Towards a Casteless Society: how undergraduate questioning can lead to major potential breakthroughs

Solutions to highly complex problems are sometimes very simple and they come not from experts but from some insignificant personalities. Very often they come from students and as a teacher I have experiences this, multiple times. Here is an interesting example of a solution that can potentially change entire India.  

Caste system has existed in India for several centuries and has shaped its social, political, economic, agricultural and environmental history in a number of ways. As we take on the challenges of the modern world, it is necessary to free the society of the woe of the caste divide. Although some of the customs such as untouchability have been largely, if not completely, eradicated, the caste system is far from being weakened.  The concept of caste based reservation system was introduced with an intention of the upliftment of the depressed class, ultimately leading to an equitable society. But in democratic India, politicization of caste based reservations appears to have strengthened the caste barriers rather than dissolving them. Political parties seek vote banks in caste appeasement and focus on luring and exploiting them rather than uplifting their educational, livelihood and economic status. Any attempt even to review, rethink or revise the reservation system is not beneficial for any political party. Over the last decade we have seen increasing demand for reservation from caste groups that were not classically considered as deprived. This has grown into a vicious cycle and in the current political system there does not appear to be a way leading to a homogenous, amalgamated society. Any appeal and steps towards a casteless society are least likely to be politically supported and viable. Therefore no political party could ever support, even utter such a policy.

Given this political scenario, can we even think of a casteless Indian society?

The answer is yes, a potential path to a casteless society emerged from a discussion with an undergraduate student at IISER-Pune. Swati Choudhary, was not a “brilliant” (by the conventional standards) student in my first year class. She had a tough life passing the first year but subsequently improved her academic grades.

But when I started the katta sessions, she opened up and started asking questions and her questions quite often were very original and out of the box. She raised the question of caste based reservations once and was quite upset about it. She herself was admitted to IISER through reservations but thought that there was something weird about the system and wondered where was taking us!! Over the next several weeks we thought and discussed the issue many a times. And one day a very practical solution emerged. Then we worked on it further for quite some time. Wrote a model and did numerical simulations on how it would work in the society.

Being in a research institute my first instinct was “let us publish a research paper on this”. I realize now that it was a bad thought and we wasted two years unnecessarily trying to publish the idea in the form of a research paper. Now since I have come out of formal science organizations, I realize that taking the idea directly to people is the right way. By the way, we tried to publish this in social science journals and the editorial correspondence and the names of the journals are available Here.

Whose idea was it? Swati thinks that it was my idea and I think that it emerged through an interaction. I think on the other hand, that there was no reason why I would have thought of this any time. Swati raised a question and then we talked about a number of possibilities. Ultimately I could articulate all the fragments together to build an executable solution. So I can’t call it my idea. It emerged thorough our interaction. What emerged is as follows.

The solution consists of expanding rather than reducing caste based reservations in such a way that caste based reservations would ultimately be ineffective without having to remove them any time. The new policy being suggested would fulfill the original objectives of caste based reservation and ultimately vanish on its own after having served the purpose. No government would have to take the political decision of removing caste based reservations, but the reservations will vanish ultimately after having served their intended purpose.

The new policy suggested here has three distinct goals (i) gender equality (ii) towards a casteless society in education and jobs (iii) a true cultural amalgamation. A true cultural amalgamation, the real long term goal is extremely difficult to achieve since castes have divided the society for several centuries. A change in the mindset of the society cannot be brought about by any law. Nevertheless the first two goals can be addressed by law and they can be important steps in achieving the ultimate goal.

  1. The proposed solution:

The central idea of the proposed policy is that if a boy and girl belonging to two different castes marry with each other, both of them as well as their children should be identified in all official documents as belonging to both the castes. If the two castes belong to two different reservation categories, they should be allowed to avail reservation benefits of both the categories. This advantage will be carried forward to their subsequent generations indefinitely. That is, their entire lineage will be identified as belonging to two castes and if they belong to different reservation categories they should be eligible for seats/posts/scholarships and other benefits reserved for both the categories. The caste based benefits are not restricted to reservations. There are several other caste specific schemes for entrepreneurship development, community development, welfare schemes, student scholarships, research grants and so on. Families with multi-caste identities would be naturally eligible for dual benefits but government can further plan to offer even greater benefits to such multi-caste families which will ultimately pave the way to a casteless society.

Inter-caste marriages do happen even now but generally the resultant family is said to belong to the boy’s caste. Therefore today inter-caste marriages have little impact on the caste system. There is no ethical reason why only the boy’s caste should propagate. The well accepted idea of gender equality necessitates that mother’s caste should be of equal importance. Therefore it is ethical that the progeny can take the benefits, if any, of both the castes. The central idea of the proposed scheme is not only to encourage inter-caste marriages, incentives for which exist even today, but to give the resultant family a dual caste identity.

Further if a person with a dual caste identity marries with spouse belonging to a third category, the couple and their entire lineage down the line should be entitled for a three category benefit and so on. Ultimately there will be families that are eligible for all categories and are thereby casteless and reservation less. The proportion of such families in the society will go on ever increasing since there is no way back. This policy along with other benefits and incentives for inter-caste marriage will have a slow but far reaching and irreversible consequence for the Indian society.

The expected desirable effects and implications of the policy are as follows

  1. Gender equality: 

With the new proposed policy both the boy and the girl do not have to give up their caste identity but at the same time they can avail reservation or any other benefits of their spouse’s caste. This is a robust incentive for inter-caste marriages. Here the girl coming from a different caste category brings in substantial benefits to the family and this is duly recognized in her legal rights. In the long run this will have at least a small contribution in uplifting the status of the married woman.

  1. Attractive to the educated young generation:

The best way to attract youth to inter-caste marriages is to offer them job benefits immediately after marriage. It doesn’t make sense to offer any educational reservations because we don’t want to encourage early marriages. But after completing education, getting a job as a reward of inter-caste marriage is guaranteed to be a big attractor for educated youth. In an orthodox Indian society, the families and communities are unlikely to support inter-caste marriages. But youth that are independent, educated and eligible for jobs are expected to come forward and avail the offered benefits of inter-caste marriage. Since the participation is entirely voluntary, the classical reservation benefits of the extant castes will continue to exist for the ones that remain away from the new trend.

Since we expect inter-caste marriages to come from more educated youth, the relevance of reservations will be lost only when the society as a whole is largely educated and open minded. The benefits to the deprived classes will continue for several decades to come which should be sufficient to improve their educational and financial status. After that there is no need to remove reservations as a political decision. They will slowly but definitely become irrelevant themselves.

  1. A culturally amalgamated society:

True cultural amalgamation has to evolve within the society and cannot be enforced by law, incentives or government policy. However, the above policy will support and facilitate such a process and the effects will be apparent over a few generations.

System for implementation:

Successful implementation of the policy will be data intensive. The traditional procedure to certify the caste of a person was highly inefficient and subject to manipulation. The new policy depends upon keeping accurate personal records over several generations which are least prone to manipulation. This has been made possible today by technology. The caste identity, inter-caste marriages and dual or multiple category advantages can be linked to the Adhar database and accurate multi-generational information would be available at the time of marriage registration, school/university admission or job appointments. If every marriage, divorce and birth is linked to the central database, it would be next to impossible to manipulate the information.

Possible frauds

We should assume that in spite of all attempts to arrest manipulation, people are likely to find some ways to make some jugad to take undue advantage of the new policy. The common temptation would be to register fake marriage to get a government job and then divorce. While divorce is a human right and it cannot be prevented, some simple procedural specifications can prevent this possibility. When a job is obtained through inter-caste marriage based reservation, half the salary should go to the job holder and half to the spouse’s account directly. This arrangement cannot be changed as long as the job is held independent of staying or not staying together. This would be an effective deterrent to exploit poor lower caste partners to get the benefits of reservation and then divorce them. In any case, frauds of any kind will not defeat the main purpose of the policy. So although there should be attempts to prevent them, in reality, greater the fraud, faster would the rise in the proportion of multiple caste identities and faster would be the progress towards a casteless society.

  1. How long will it take?

We developed a simple mathematical model that can predict the time course of the caste dynamics under the suggested policy taking current population figures from Socioeconomic and caste census, of Govt of India. The model shows that it would be invariably a slow process in any case, but the change will be directional and irreversible. The crucial determinant of the rate of change is the rate of inter-caste marriages. If we go only be the current rate of inter-caste marriages, it will be over 500 years just to get 5 % of the society in the casteless category. But if there are attractive incentives for seeking inter-caste partners, and the frequency of inter-caste marriages increases to twice what can happen by chance alone, within 150 years, over 80% of the society will have gone complete casteless. For the caste system that has been there for thousands of years, 150 years is not a big time.  

  1. Possible societal and political response:

As people witness the multi-caste identity families getting greater benefits, they are likely to increasingly support inter-caste marriages. The question is whether any political party would be interested in any process whose results are so much delayed. However, there is another potential political advantage. If a ruling political party brings in this bill, how would other parties react? In India it appears to be mandatory for the opposing parties to oppose any bill proposed by the ruling party independent of any logic. However in order to oppose, at least some logical and public appealing guise is certainly needed. It is also important to avoid being politically incorrect by the current standards. On these grounds it would be difficult to take an opposing stand. Any political party has to support gender equality at least by lip service. Since caste based reservations are never demolished, opposition cannot stand on these grounds. Owing to the secular ideological correctness, mainstream media are expected to uphold the bill making it further difficult for political parties to oppose it. The party promoting the bill would be labeled by the media as ‘progressive’, a label highly desired by all parties. Most important feature of the bill would be that its effects on caste politics will appear only over one or more generations. Vote banks will not be lost immediately, so caste based politics need not be given up immediately which parties won’t like to do. If a party can raise its progressive image without immediately losing its caste support, it can see a tangible benefit in it. Therefore this policy can be politically sound and viable from all angles.

I have no idea, whether anyone would read this, share and spread the word around. But social media have immense power, although they work somewhat stochastically. I would appeal all readers to spread the idea around. If it goes from readers to leaders, there would certainly be a political change and at least our future generations would be able to see a casteless India.

P. S. Within three weeks of my post, there is a court decision that mother’s caste matters in cases of intercaste marriage. See link,

Why is transparency in the review process needed?

I will try to explain why I think transparency in the review process is a solution to most of the problems associated with scientific publishing. But first of all why are peer-reviews necessary or are they; and if they are, what purpose do they serve?

Personally I feel peer reviews are certainly desirable if not “necessary” per se. Certainly, good science was being published prior to 1960s when only a few journals were practicing anonymous peer reviews. But the community has changed substantially and publishing has changed even more. Earlier, subscribers paid for a journal and authors did not pay for publishing. Today the trend is that the authors pay and readers enjoy free access. This is not only a technical change. It reflects the changing community, the changing market forces in scientific publishing. So what worked in the early 20th century may not work today. Analysing this change is worth a whole thesis, but for the time being, I will only pen down my personal ‘belief’ that peer review has become indispensable in the context of today’s scientific publishing.

What are peer reviews intended to do and what do they actually do? I believe the original idea of peer review was to supplement the thinking of one research group by others in the field, who may have a somewhat different vision. It is possible and natural that researchers are often carried away by their own hypothesis or that they might have adopted a narrow view. This is likely to lead to partial blinding and inability to view the other side of the problem, if any. Peers from the same field but with different points of view can complement or at least point out other possibilities, any flaws or paradoxes that might be arising along with the new finding being reported.  Addressing the concerns of such peer reviewers, the manuscript quality can improve substantially. Such a peer review would be extremely helpful in any field of science.

However, this is hardly the purpose that today’s peer reviews serve. They are mainly used to decide acceptance or rejection of manuscripts. Often the accept/reject decision is taken first and then elaborate justifications are sought for the decision. Often this is the main purpose and content of the review report. This is partly because most journals are flooded with submissions and are looking for convenient tools to get away from this overburden. So the original purpose of peer review is completely lost.

This, in itself, is a substantial degradation of the peer review tradition, but let us accept this as inevitable and see whether peer reviews serve at least this function reasonably well. This is a valid question and should potentially be testable. But it cannot be tested in the present scenario because the data are not available for testing. So first of all, simply in order to convince the scientific community that peer reviews really serve the purpose, all peer review data should be made available, which means the peer reviews should be transparent to everyone.

There are more reasons for insisting on transparency. Although good journals can be assumed to choose reviewers carefully, there is no guarantee that ultimately these individuals actually review the manuscript. It is just too common all over the world that leading researchers find themselves too busy to give time to a seemingly ‘unproductive’ work and they ask their students, even undergraduates to do the reviews. This practice is common throughout the world, but no data on it are available. If they have to do it themselves, they can at the best devote limited time to it. This often results into irresponsible reviews. Good researchers would not like to be called irresponsible, but that is unlikely to ever happen because hardly anyone knows who has written the review report. More responsible reviewers will not take a review commitment unless they can devote sufficient time to it. Here lies the major problem. The result of their responsible behaviour is that there are more irresponsible reviewers in the field. If the reviewer remains anonymous, the blame of irresponsible reviews goes on the editor. The editor presumably would like the review process to be more responsible, but for an editor, finding a reviewer is the foremost problem. Since most responsible researchers will not commit unless they have sufficient time, which they never have, the editor has hardly any choice. A transparent review will expose irresponsibility, if any, and I think that may be sufficient to bring in more responsibility in the review process.

Third is the problem of journal quality. The best way to judge a journal’s quality is to look at the rigor and quality of reviews. But since this information remains hidden, other indices such as impact factors get an upper hand. There has been serious criticism of impact factors and other numerical indices, but since the important remains hidden, we make the easily visible important. If all peer reviews are made publicly available, the quality of the editorial process will become transparent and grading of journals can be based on what really matters in scientific publishing.

This will naturally drive away the menace of predatory journals. The definition of a predatory journal is not that they extract money from authors. Many good journals also do it. The definition depends upon absence of or having a fake review system. If reviews are transparent, they will be compelled to undertake serious reviews and if they do so they will no more be “predatory”. So transparency of the review process is necessary and sufficient to eliminate predatory journals.

Authors of rejected papers are often cribbing about unfair review. This might be often, if not always, true. There is a feel that manuscripts from authors from less known organizations or countries are more likely to be returned without review or face review by second grade reviewers. There is no way to test this since no data are available. Reviews can be unfair, biased or irresponsible. Even if a reviewer recommends rejection, the comments should be useful in improving the manuscript. My own impression based on the comments received on our manuscripts is that about 20 % of the comments are really useful in improving the quality of the manuscript, either for the same journal or for resubmission elsewhere; about 50 % are irrelevant to the central argument of the manuscript and attack some peripheral features of the manuscript or attack what has not been said in the manuscript; about 30% are factually wrong or unsupported. But my sample size is small, or my opinion might be biased. If the reviews are transparent, let readers decide whether reviews serve their main purpose or not, and for which journal the proportion of useful reviews is better.

But on top of all, I think science will benefit by studying the behaviour of different players in science and scientific publishing. Science is a human activity and all elements of human nature are very much there. Science does not progress by theorems, hypotheses and evidence alone. Certain components of the human mind and human social behaviour drive the progress of science. There are evolved psychological traits and diverse cultural traditions that decide how science progresses. What people in a field are ready to accept, what they reject and what they prefer to ignore are complex phenomena, not very clearly understood as of now. Studying these aspects of behaviour should have been an essential part of understanding science. However, the main source of data for such studies remains unavailable due to the unnecessary and religious confidentiality of the editorial process. It is utmost necessary to break this barrier.

What are the hurdles in bringing in transparency? One is the power structure in the scientific community. Transparency challenges the power of the powerful and we can expect extreme resistance to transparency from the politically powerful lobby in science. For an open minded, well intended true scientist, I am unable to imagine any reason not to support transparency of the editorial process. Anonymity at the most, is understandable, and sufficient to minimize personal conflicts potentially arising from review reports. But there is absolutely no reason why the reports should not be made public. The other hurdle would be from authors lacking confidence. If they feel their manuscript has weaknesses which are exposed by the peer review, they could be reluctant to publish them. But certainly any honest editor or reviewer, and any confident but open minded author would certainly support transparent peer review systems.

How to publish peer reviews?

Scientific publishing has changed substantially by the emerging pre-prints culture. Pre-print services also allow uploading revisions. Now just one more step is to include the review reports and authors responses along with the revisions independent of acceptance or rejection. My experience with BioRxiv is that they objected to disclosing the journal name, but published the comments and our responses that we uploaded. So a new path to publish peer reviews is opened up, although with some constraints. If you have posted your pre-print you can always post the review reports you receive. In case this doesn’t work, authors can do so on their own blogs. This is what my attempt here is. I have no idea at the moment whether and how it will click. What I mean by ‘click’ is a few more researchers feel like doing so. I presume authors confident about the quality of their work would respond positively, others will not. But in case the trend clicks, I have no doubt, it will revolutionize scientific publishing.

Links for a few more reviews of our manuscripts here:

  1. Inferring causality from correlations: This is an age old problem with a lot of philosophical discussions, but little usable sound methods helping actual causal inference. We hit upon what we though was a possible major break-through. We had usable methods to infer causality from correlations provided there were three or more intercorrelated variables, not two. There was simple but sound mathematical basis for all the methods. The only problem was that this was coming from a biology lab, not a mathematical statisticians’ group. We got five rejections in a row before publishing finally in PLOS ONE (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0204755). All the editor’s responses and the original manuscripts communicated are available Here. Interestingly some found it too complex and some thought the mathematics was too simple to publish. Nowhere, in the reasons for rejection, our central argument that causality can be inferred from correlations using a set of methods was challenged.
  2. We had communicated an article to Behaviour and Brain Science. It was rejected saying that we just published another article in a similar field and we do not publish many articles in the same field. Our article had no overlap with the central argument of the earlier published article, just that it was in the same field. Incidentally a few weeks later another article on the same subject was accepted, and that came to me for comments. I pointed out that the reason that you gave for rejecting our paper is not true since your journal does publish many articles in the same field. So give some other, more logical excuse for rejecting our manuscript!! This was followed by a series of emails in which a number of secrets of the editorial process were revealed, but the editor raised strong objections for making these emails public. So I am posting Here only the rejection letter and my response to it.

Scientific publishing: can a small man like me revolutionize the field?

Publishing what should not be confidential

Over a decade ago, I met a highly successful US based scientist of Indian origin. He routinely published, and publishes even now, dozens of papers in the most prestigious flagship journals. I have read much of his work with interest and have seen that he has consistently delivered excellent publications on the cutting edge of science. I asked him whether he thought he could do the same quality of research if he worked in India. Without having to think for a moment, he answered frankly, “At least in my field, I have no doubt, I can do the same quality work in India. What I am not so sure is that I would be able to publish it the same way!” He added further, “Publication is a mafia. If I am not in the circle, I won’t be able to publish. It is not enough to have good quality work, you need to have connections in the influential circles.”

Several years later I had a conversation with a celebrated scientist, a Noble Laureate himself. We were together for three days and he listened to my work and my ideas with interest. Then he said, “With a mind like yours, I won’t be surprised if you publish in Nature, Science, Lancet, PNAS quite frequently.” My spontaneous response was, “Try publishing from India and you will know.” He did not blink, only nodded. He did not need more than a moment to imagine and agree fully and instantaneously.

Everyone seems to know how the world of scientific publishing works. I won’t use the word ‘mafia’ myself. It is better left to discussions over coffee with successful elite scientists. But like every researcher I know that scientific publishing is a field loaded with so many weird problems, only a few of them surface once in a while and receive some attention, discussion and debate. Being a student of behaviour, I see many fascinating behavioural phenomena happening here, which make wonderful research problems. But the existing system of scientific publication does not permit any research of this kind. This is mainly due to the sacred confidentiality of the editorial process. The field of meta-science or the science of science is an extremely weak, almost non-existent effort. The handful of low ranking researchers in this field do publish something realistic and insightful once in a while, but which largely remains ignored by the scientific community and therefore has hardly made any impact on main stream science so far. Although ultimately it aught to make an impact, at present they are constrained by unavailability of data, which is largely due to the unnecessary confidentiality of the editorial process.

Most working scientists are fully aware of the flaws in the peer review system but they consider them ‘necessary evil’. Most seem to think that there is no better alternative and therefore let the system be what it is. But what if the evil is growing exponentially? Perhaps it is, and that is being felt as well. One cannot show the trend using any data, because all data remain hidden. There is nothing more ironic in the field of science. Entire science is based on availability of data and the main pillars of science are interested in hiding all data. Today science is moving rapidly towards a culture of open access, open source; where most journals now insist that authors make their raw data public in some form or the other. But the same journals are not ready to make the review process transparent and accessible to the public.

What really goes on under the carpet of confidentiality  is left to anybody’s imagination. We only need to know that scientists are humans too and everything that goes on in the human world, does happen in the world of science too. Just that it remains hidden. Some journals now publish the reviewers’ comments along with the paper, but this is limited to accepted papers alone. All rejection related correspondence always remains hidden and there lies the real problem.

Interestingly, unlike the popular belief among students, a confidential review process is not a time tested tradition. It is fairly recent in the history of science. Out of the 300 papers published by Einstein, only one was subject to anonymous peer review and the comments were quite negative. Einstein himself made some nasty comments on it and withdrew his manuscript never to publish again in any journal with confidential peer review. Nature considered peer reviews as mandatory only by 1967 and Lancet by 1976. Mandatory peer review exists only for one or two generations of researchers. This is not long enough to say that it is a time tested system. The system has remained stable only because all possible ways of challenging it are blocked. Unless journals make the review data and particularly rejection data available to any meta-science researcher, the system cannot be claimed to be fair. Whenever, the peer review system has been tested, it is found to be highly flawed. There are only a handful of attempts to test it and they are published as well (for example see 1-6). So the most important activity in science, that of publishing stands on demonstrated unscientific principles.

The confidentiality of peer review has given rise to an entirely different problem, that of the so called “predatory journals”. Predatory journal is a big trap created by editorial confidentiality of the mainstream scientists. At present there are problems even in defining a predatory journal. There is no way to demonstrate that these journals publish without good quality peer reviews. They can always escape saying that we follow rigorous peer reviews but they are confidential so we cannot disclose. There is no use blaming such journals because this ghost is created by the mainstream journals themselves.

Can scientific publishing be made scientific? Can it be brought out from its religious fervour? We can certainly answer this positively and the way to do so is also very clear and simple. Bringing transparency in the editorial correspondence is the only and ”simple” way out. The reason I put the word simple within quotes is that it is conceptually simple, but not simple to execute because it will change the power structure in the field and so the currently powerful people will be reluctant to give up.

There is some justification for confidentiality and some of it’s reasons are genuine, but not intractable. The review process can be made public without affecting the anonymity of reviewers, or keeping anonymity optional for them. Many journals already have this option and this takes care of almost all potential problems arising out of transparency.

It’s not that things are not changing. Many journals are exploring different options for peer review. Some tried double blind peer review. What could be a sound looking idea, is actually not behaviourally sound. If a reviewer receives a manuscript from unknown authors, by human nature, the first reaction is to guess who could the authors be. The focus of the reviewer then goes on picking up indirect cues by which the author identity could be guessed. This guesswork does not help in eliminating biases, it might make it even more weird. So double blinding cannot be said to be a successful alternative. But there are more practical alternatives and there are attempts to try them out.

Last month we had a pleasant surprise. On communicating a manuscript to PLOS Biology, we got a request from the editors for our consent for an open public appeal on BiorXivs and on twitter for comments on our manuscript. We gladly consented. There were hardly any comments in the public domain, apart from brief ones showing positive interest, but based on three comments confidentially received by the journal the editors rejected our MS. I wrote back saying in the spirit of open peer review that we have consented for, the comments and our responses to them should be posted along with the pre-print. After a series of emails, two of the three reviewers and the editors consented and we posted the comments and our responses on BiorXiv (see the comments section of https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/553016v1 ). I think making the peer review public is a significant historically important development. Now BiorXiv accepts posting reviewer comments and author responses for a rejected manuscript. They declined to disclose the name of the journal. But the journal itself had tweeted that they are reviewing our manuscript, therefore BiorXiv’s stand of not disclosing the journal name is meaningless anyway. I feel the rejection was a blessing in disguise and a first hand experience of this new tradition is a greater reward.

On this background, I have made one more decision. I will also make the comments received on my other manuscripts public on my own blog along with our responses to it whenever appropriate. I see no reason for not disclosing the journal or the editor’s name. Reviewers mostly remain anonymous anyway. This activity will be independent of acceptance or rejection. I will also write back to the editor asking them to inform the reviewers that we have published your comments, and our responses to it, if any, and you are welcome to react on it further. I am sure that although a small step, this will potentially be a turning point. If a number of authors start making the reviews public, the reviewers will have to be more responsible for the comments they write. This increased sense of responsibility, by itself can reduce the problem substantially.

Is it illegal to do so? I see no reason. On at least half a dozen times, after getting a rejection, I asked the editors would they mind if I make all the editorial correspondence public? On this I received an amazing diversity of responses, including sheer panic, desperate defence of editor’s rights to rejection (which I had not challenged in any case). I further asked many of them whether they would take a legal action if I make them public, and under which law? For this they did not know whether there was any legal protection to the confidentiality of the editorial process. But without worrying about legality, I have decided to do two things in this blog. One is that I will publish my analysis of optimization of behavioural strategies of the different players in the scientific publishing game in a series of articles. This is a fairly large volume of work that could potentially make a thesis. But I will restrict myself to a series of (non-peer-reviewed) articles. The other is that I will start publishing the comments that we received for manuscripts communicated from our lab, one by one on this blog. This will apply to previous years too. I will encourage other researchers, particularly from the younger generation to watch this and decide whether they too would like to make the reviews public. If a critical mass (which need not be too large) of researchers start doing so, at the best it will bring in a revolution in scientific publishing in no time.  At the least, it would provide excellent research material for researchers in history and philosophy of science and meta-science.

See these links to the editorial correspondence and peer reviews (along with follow up correspondence in some cases) of rejected manuscripts from our lab during the last few years.

  1. Rejection by Diabetes Care for our manuscript “How much variance in insulin resistance is explained by obesity?”. After receiving the rejection letter, I asked the editor, whether I can quote some comments from the rejection letter in any future article. I received a very long response. In this letter the editor actually agreed completely with our main argument. The long letter did not say anything about not allowing me to quote. So I am publishing the entire correspondence Here.
  2. We wrote a response letter to an article published in the Lancet, which the editors declined to publish. Then we wrote to the authors directly that for us publishing was not important but we had raised a question and would like to know your response to the question, which may be in the form of a personal email to us. The authors did not respond to this.
  3. A network model of type 2 diabetes, that had somewhat surprising and non-conformist outcomes, which was ultimately published by PLOS ONE, was rejected first by a number of leading journals. In none of the rejections, out central arguments were challenged. The reasons for rejection are very interesting and worth reading. Through subsequent submissions, the manuscript did improve a bit, but the comments received were hardly of any use towards improvement. You will find the editorial correspondence with Cell, Cell Metabolism, PLoS Biology, PLoS Computational Biology, Biology Direct and PLoS One here.

I will keep on publishing more editorial correspondence about rejections as well as acceptance one by one on this blog.

  1. Phillips J. S. 2011 Expert bias in peer review. Curr. Med. Res.
    Opin. 27, 2229–2233.
  2. Lee et al 2013 Bias in peer review. J. Am. Soc. Ino. Sci. Tech. 64, 2–17.
  3. Haffar et al 2019 Peer review bias: a critical review. Myo Clinic Proc. 94, 670-676.
  4. Tomkins et al 2017 Reviewer bias in single versus double blind peer review. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 114, 12708-12713.
  5. Kuehn B. M. 2017 Peer review: rooting out bias. eLife 2017;6:e32014
  6. Tancock C. 2018 When reviewing goes wrong. The ugly side of peer review. Elsevier Connect March 23, 2018.