President’s Blog

Posted on March 29, 2015
John Challis

As I write this there are 136 days left until the ISB Congress in Glasgow. Of course much hard work has already gone into preparing for our twenty fifth congress. The most recent flurry of activity was the reviewing of abstracts. I reviewed 40 abstracts, and am looking forward to hearing more detailed dispositions on the work contained in those abstracts. The peer review process is considerably older than the ISB. Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677) was the founding editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. These transactions were first published in 1655 and were the first scientific journal published, more importantly it also initiated peer review process. Oldenburg sent submitted manuscripts to experts to judge before potential publication. Peer review and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society both persist to the current day.

Peer review is the corner stone of modern science. The British politician Winston Churchill (1874-1965) claimed,

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

Churchill can be paraphrased to described most scientists feelings about peer review,

“Peer review is the worst form of academic quality control, except for all the others.”

So most scientists have a love-hate relationship with peer review, although in recent years the nature of peer review has changed. For example, the on-line journal PLOS ONE ( has changed the peer review paradigm. They “will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound”, therefore their review does not assess the importance or potential impact of the work -  that is left for the on-line community. In a similar fashion the relatively new on-line journal PeerJ ( “…judges content only on scientific and methodological soundness. It does not, for example, reject articles based on lack of novelty, interest or impact”. These on-line journals have different peer review criteria compared with traditional journals, and have already changed the 360 year nature of the peer review process.

The journal Environmental Microbiology annually publishes a selection of reviewers comments, many of their selection indicate the frustrations some reviewers experience,

“This is a very poor paper. I am sorry I read it. I will try to purge it from my mind.”
“This is an interesting manuscript, not because of its results, but because of its complete ignorance of the scientific process.”
“I would recommend rejecting this paper as quickly as possible.”
“This is depressing! So much work with so little science.”
“I’m not convinced that they know what they’re talking about.”
“Lots of work, effort, but no real science.”
“The peaceful atmosphere between Christmas and New Year was transiently disrupted by reading this manuscript.”
Of course not all impressions of reviewed manuscripts are bad ones,
“I nearly said reject. But then I recalled that I have a hangover and am feeling grumpy.”
“Beautiful manuscript, important, relevant and entertaining topic.”

Publishing costs money irrespective of whether it is a traditional journal or in the newer on-line versions. In the past journals were available either from libraries or due to a personal subscription to the journal. So in this case, traditional journal publishing, most people read papers due to the subscription of their institution’s library. In this case the cost of publishing was predominantly borne by institutional subscriptions. The new on-line journals are freely available to people with internet access, but in this case it is the authors who pay for the cost of publishing. So these new on-line journals have a different peer review process and payment structure; their long term impact on science is open for discussion. A hybrid model does exist where for a fee papers published in a traditional journal can be available as open access. Authors should carefully consider the implications of selecting one publishing type over another.

The nature of scientific publishing is undergoing some of the largest changes in its 360 year history. It could be argued that who pays for the publishing of work in journals is influencing the nature of the peer review process. A counter case could be made that the market place has provided different methods of getting work published, with the nature of the research dictating where the work should be published. As the nature of scientific publishing undergoes these changes one thing which remains is the importance of the peer review in the scientific process. All reviewers should be thanked for their efforts, even if they sometimes become a bit frustrated.



John Challis
Penn State University

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