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Peer Review - An Editor's Point of View
I have been monitoring the discussions about peer review and feel that I should
step in and offer some points of view from an editor's point of view. Most of
you know that I have edited several scholarly books on dinosaurs (4, with 3
more in development), but I am also associate editor for the Journal of
Vertebrate Paleontology and for the journal Earth Sciences History. In
addition, I teach Research Methods and Report Writing class at the museum here.
Thus, I am well qualified to address this issue of peer review.
First, however, to clarify an issue. There is a mistaken belief that if you are
a professional paleontologist, you are guaranteed to get your paper published.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. My rejected manuscripts include: one
written with Greg Paul in the early 1980s where we suggested that Velociraptor
was a ground-dwelling descendent of Archaeopteryx (submitted to
Palaeontographica), another written in the 1980s naming a new species of Late
Cretaceous gar (submitted to Copeia), another on the function of armor in
ankylosaurs written in the early 1990s (submitted to Paleobiology; these ideas
were later published by someone else!!), a manuscript (2001) with Angela
Matthias on our experimental work on ants collecting of fossils (Journal of
Vertebrate Paleontology), and another (2002) on evidence for spike use by
Stegosaurus (Nature). One that almost did not get published was one naming a
new pterosaur from the Morrison. The reviewer rejected it on the grounds that !
he did not think the museum the hlotype is at was suitable, but I managed to
prevail with the editor (it is now in press). Finally, another discussing bone
beds and mass catastrophes that was rejected for publication in a Geological
Society of America volume on K-T extinction. Fortunately, I was able to salvage
part of that work and published it with Emmett Evanoff on the taphonomy and
sedimentology of the Marsh-Felch Quarry (Modern Geology).
Why these manuscripts were rejected cover a wide range: the manuscript with
Greg was rejected because the editor felt that it should be published in a
journal that allows Letters to the Editor (e.g., Science, Nature) or a similar
venue of debate. They knew that it would be a controversial topic and felt that
the journal should be one that would foster debate. Greg and I never did submit
it elsewhere, in part because it would mean a massive trimming of text, and
also I think we thought the other person would take the lead. In at least one
instance, I know that one of the reviewers was negative because basically, he
did not think of the idea first (to ameliorate that problem, there are usually
at least two reviewers). At least one rejection was strictly personal because
the editor and I once had a major clash. I could have submitted the manuscript
elsewhere, but I have gone on to other topics. Nevertheless, I don't like
getting a manuscript rejected anymore than any of the res!
t of you. Some professional paleotologists publish very little in their life
time because for them the review process is too emotional. The sting of review
comments or rejection hurts too much and they are not able to get beyond it.
As an editor, as well as when I am asked to be a reviewer, I freely admit that
I am hard. BUT I do spend a lot of time with the manuscript trying to help the
author to salvage it. I have done so even though my recommendation has been for
it to be publish it elsewhere. And that raises another issue: not ever journal
is suitable for your manuscript. The editors for Palaeontographica were correct
that their journal was not the correct outlet for Greg's and my manuscript.
With JVP, we are having to make harder choices regarding suitable manuscripts.
It is VERY doubtful that the paper reporting a hadrosaur tooth from Antarctica
would get published now. Not that the occurrence isn't important, but because
JVP receives hundreds of manuscripts every year, some qualifiers are needed,
the best of which is that the manuscript must have a broad, international
appeal. An occurrence of a hadrosaur in Antarctica (which cannot be identified
more than that) really is something of minor inter!
est, and to a specialist (e.g., smeone compiling a fauna list for Antarctica,
etc.). In today's climate, the authors would be recommended to submit the
manuscript elsewhere, perhaps Neues Jahrbuch or a journal specializing in
Antarctica geology. So, what would now be an acceptable paper for JVP? One that
names a new taxon, one that describes a new specimen that provides new and
major morphological detail, etc.
As an editor and reviewer, I do try to be fair and am open to a well reasoned
argument. After all, I am the one who stuck my neck out to defend John Rubin
despite the fact that I disagree with him on bird origins(he is a proponent of
non-dinosaur bird origin). Most manuscripts actually get rejected because the
arguments are not well made. The biggest flaw is that the writer assumes too
much of the reader, so does not build the case like a lawyer: step by step.
Instead, in order to immediately present their gem of an idea, the building
arguments are left out. But how am I, the reader, suppose to follow your lines
of reasoning to how you got to your idea if you fail to give them to me? After
all, I haven't been in your mind to follow the progression of your ideas over
the days/weeks/months. Without mentioning names, some of those who grouse about
the peer review system have failed here. The onus is upon you to convince me
that you are right, not upon me to prove you wrong (the!
Creationist approach). If I am nt convinced that Tarbosaurus baatar
(=Tyrannosaurus baatar) is a new genus, it is because the case was not well
presented. An "it's obvious" attitude does not work (after all, Creationists
use that argument to "prove" that God had to be responsible for the complexity
Finally, the review process really is supposed to help improve the quality of
the paper. The vast majority of review comments are spelling corrections,
punctuation, grammar, unclear writing, etc. If an author would follow most of
those without taking the comments personally, the manuscript would be greatly
improved. However, it is those small, rather irritating comments of
disagreement that can get under the skin. Usually the problem, as I wrote
above, is that the time was not spent to develop the argument fully - and that
most certainly applies to the 'raptors as secondary flightlessness debate - or
to present the arguments clearly. Poor writing is certainly a cause for
miss-understanding (hence rejecting) a manuscript. If I don't understand or
miss-understand an argument or line of reasoning, then having the manuscript
rejected is sometimes viewed as a rejection of the idea - which may not be true.
My advice to someone wanting to improve their writing, there are books on
scientific writing - READ THEM. I strongly recommend "Successful Scientific
Writing" by J. Matthews, J. Bowen, and R. Matthews (Cambridge University
Press). If you are unwilling to be trained, then you have no one to blame but
yourself if your manuscript gets rejected - and that is NOT a conspiracy.
Kenneth Carpenter, Ph.D.
Associate Editor, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology
Associate Editor, Earth Sciences History
Dept. of Earth Sciences
Denver Museum of Natural History
2001 Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80205
Image this: "a thundering herd of waddling ankylosaurs..."
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