Why using an expert to review a paper is sometimes a bad thing

I have written about the importance and role of paper reviewers before, but a recent experience has prompted me to put fingers to keyboard yet again. As an Editor, my practice when choosing referees is to invite, whenever possible, an early career researcher (ECR) and a well-established expert in the field. My reasoning behind this being that the ECR will be very au fait with the current literature and techniques (statistical and experimental), and very likely to do the job quickly. The ancient professor old fogey well established expert, may take longer to respond, but will definitely know the early literature and be in a good position to judge the novelty of the work and point out if the wheel is being reinvented (Leather, 2004).

Until recently I thought that this was a fool-proof approach, but then I had the opportunity to referee a paper right up my street; the study organism was the subject of my PhD and I have continued working with it (albeit recently, mainly via PhD and MSc students) for the last forty years.  The paper described a well-designed and analysed experiment, and, miracle of miracles, cited me all the relevant literature.  I had only a few minor points and enthusiastically recommended publication with only minor revision.  I was a bit surprised when I received notice of the journal’s decision to see that they had given the author a major revision. On reading the other reviewer’s report, (the practice of copying the reviewer’s reports to each reviewer is a fantastic service), I realised why.

Having being involved with the topic for a life-time, I knew exactly what the author had done and what their rationale was, so hadn’t picked up on the fact that some of the methodology and whys and wherefores would be somewhat opaque to non-experts.  This is of course why we get (or should) our colleagues to read our papers before we submit them.  Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it can certainly lead to a false sense of how niche one’s research area actually is.

I will, despite this, still continue to use well-established experts to review papers but will try not to weight their opinions more highly than those of the ECRs. As for me, I will, in future be looking much more critically at the approaches and rationale of papers that deal with subjects very close to my heart. Alternatively, I could just give up reviewing papers 🙂

Reference

Leather, S.R. (2004) Reinventing the wheel – on the dangers of taxon parochialism and shallow reference trawling! Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 309-311.

4 Comments

Filed under Science writing, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Why using an expert to review a paper is sometimes a bad thing

  1. Such sage advice!
    Many thanks for airing this important matter.
    All the best with the blog – its style and sagacity is much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amanda Tuke

    As usual, really interesting and very funny too 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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