The internet sewer of scientific publication compounding the failure of peer review

By: Wei Shi Meng

We love science, we also know that getting and keeping our scientific work published in a good venue can be an arduous task. This is true now more than ever due to the lack of leadership in the scientific establishment and to the advent of a new player in the game: the angry anonymous post-publication reviewer.  Peer review is also becoming a grossly unfair process, corrupted at many junctures. At the entry level, many editors try to reduce their working load by a-priori turning down as many contributions as they possibly can without even reading them.  In high-impact journals and in lesser ones, many editors simply look up author and institution and play safe based on the contributor credentials while dancing to the tune of the old-boy’s network. The story goes more or less like this: “If you are nobody but have something great to say [like, say, Albert Einstein in 1905], that’s too bad, we’ll skip you anyway. And so be it… there is still a good chance that better known people will turn in good work, so we remain pretty much on the safe side.” If you manage to get pass the rogue editor, you will find yourself facing the peer review process, where depending on many factors – typically unrelated to the quality of your science – most editors will either pick or cherry-pick peers (and you need to take his/her word that they are indeed your peers!) charged with the task of evaluating your work. If the editor is adversely predisposed, you essentially face the arduous task of proving him/her wrong by trying to rebut the ax-grinders that the editor has picked to review your paper. This is usually to little or no avail since the editor tends to side with the reviewer, again to minimize the working load by picking the path of minimum resistance.

A Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution; Sir James Dewar on Liquid Hydrogen, 1904 (oil on canvas)
19th century scientific peer review carried out in situ at The Royal Institution, London, UK.

But let’s not get too cynical or pessimistic, let’s assume you still love science in spite of these shortcomings and you have done a great deal of work and networking, and your paper gets more or less a fair treatment and gets published. Then, you are up to a different kind challenge, a new kind of challenge for which you are essentially unprepared. It concerns keeping your paper published in the good journal. Now you are really in unchartered waters. Once the cat is out of the bag (i. e. the paper is published), a grotesquely unregulated process misnamed “post publication peer review” (PPPR) sets in.  This is a veritable no man’s land, where all sorts of people (but never your peers!) say whatever they want hiding in anonymity and channel their vitriol through unregulated internet venues, sometimes even eliciting the reaction of moronic editors. If you have harvested an enemy and he/she is seriously willing to invest in your downfall, there is a chance that your scientific contribution may get gushed into the true sewer of science. Once in the internet sewage system, your work risks being vilified at garbage-collecting blogs like Retraction Watch. These unregulated blogs are true repositories of all sorts of PPPR nonsense, where anyone opines and contributes, like the angry mobs that comment on the web news outlets. The mission of such blogs is to a significant extent sustained by a coterie of sockpuppets of the blog editors and by a contributing angry mob seeking notoriety while hiding behind pseudonyms. The PPPR phase is the least regulated phase of scientific publication, and hence it ends up being the most venal. Corrupted to the marrow, PPPR – and the morons that buy into it – is nudged and steered by anyone shamelessly willing to fill the leadership void that the scientific establishment has left.

 

Ariel Fernandez, Ph. D.

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