Tag Archives: peer review

Pick and mix 6 – my top ten links from the past week

Some more links to follow, or not

 

An interesting article in Nature (makes a change) about the history of the peer review process

On the wondrous properties of spider silk and what we can use it for now and in the future

Using fake caterpillars to assess predation risk around the world

Speaking of fake, a spoof paper fooled a social science journal and two referees

On the value of Natural History Museums and why they should be preserved

On the importance of natural history training, although this is US-centric it is equally, if not more relevant to the UK as I have pointed out more than once

The Acrobatic Fly, a natural history (or should that be unnatural) film from 1910 – only three minutes so worth the time J

On broadening the western human diet to solve global food problems

How studying 25 000 dung beetles helped unravel the complexities of dung beetle evolution – great to see one of my former MSc students involved in this huge project

And to end with something completely different, a great post about what the charity Brass for Africa is doing for street children in Uganda through the medium of music teaching – I should add that my wife is one of the Trustees so I have a vested interest in advertising this 🙂

 

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Pick and mix 3 – another set of eclectic links

Another ten links to stuff I found intersting reading

After last week’s many Marches for Science, Timothy Caulfield on why we need “agenda free science

Check out these great images from Dynamic Ecology also celebrating March for Science

Did you know that some beekeepers not only name their Queens but keep a ‘family tree’; also some great photos

Some musings on what you can see if you stand still long enough from Loose and Leafy

An excellent summary from Terry McGlynn on writing good peer reviews

Interesting study from the USA showing that although fungicide residues made up more than 90% of the pesticides found in pollen insecticides posed the most risk

An interesting review paper on how the scent of predators is interpreted by their potential prey, sometimes fatally.  Warning for entomologists, many vertebrate examples given 🙂

For those interested in forest and woodland ecology – here is how to make a middle-aged wood into an ancient one

Amy Hahs on how to bring biodiversity back into cities

As someone who has had some papers rejected multiple times this joint post by Stephen Heard and Andrew Hendry on why multiple rejections are not a sign of poor quality made heartening reading

 

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Pick and mix 2 – more eclectic links

Ten more links to peruse or not.

Not just British hedgehogs, but French hedgehogs are also on the decline

If you are a lover of Wisteria then this is definitely for you

A very thoughtful piece from Terry McGlynn on the ethical and moral stances that scientists take

Here is a report of a workshop run by an ex-PhD student of mine to discuss the future of farming insects for food in the UK

A really interesting paper describing how competition between two parasitic wasps can be influenced by the presence of an endosymbiont

Here is a paper of great relevance to farmers and policy makers but as usual has been published in a high impact journal that farmers and agronomists won’t read; as scientists we have to be more open to publishing in ‘lower scientific impact’ venues but that have a high impact in the real world

BioMed Central highlighting ways in which food crops might be protected against drought caused by climate change

According to Sir John Marsh the future of the countryside depends on economics

Chris Sandbrook asks what is meant by biodiversity in a conservation context

Like Manu Saunders I am a great believer in having others read my papers before submission, their chances of getting through the peer review process relatively unscathed are much improved

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Conflicts of interest – are there ever any situations where there aren’t?

Conflict1

Two seemingly unrelated factors stimulated me to write this post. One print-based, the other ‘ether’ based.

At the back-end of last year (2015) I was reading an article in The Times Higher Educational Supplement (29-10 – 4.11.2015 volume 2227 pp 6-7) about the fall in success rates of grant applications to UK research councils.  A sub-heading of the article, Reviewers are stretched, pointed out that the research councils, like journals are struggling to find enough reviewers.  A week later I came across this ‘conversation’ on Twitter.

Conflict2

Coincidentally I had just accepted an invitation to review a grant application, having just submitted one the week before and as I was, in my Editorial capacity, inviting Reviewer number 9 to cast judgement on a submission to Annals of Applied Biology, I felt I ought to respond to the invitation. I had tried desperately hard to wriggle out of reviewing the grant application, pointing out that I had been a Co-Investigator with the Principal Investigator on a earlier grant, that I had been the PhD supervisor of one of the Co-Is and published three papers with them and that I had taught the other Co-I.  I think you could say that I knew them very well indeed.

Conflict3

This image ‘borrowed’ from the University of Houston http://www.uh.edu/research/compliance/coi/

So full disclosure of the facts and surely, I thought, enough conflicts of interest there to rule me out! To my surprise the Research Council involved, replied saying that as long as I declared this on the review form, they were quite happy for me to referee the proposal.  I am used to the Research Councils being very flexible when it comes to the time allocated to do a review, they find it so difficult to get people to agree that they are very willing extend deadlines for several weeks if you promise that you will eventually deliver a report.  This response to what I saw as a major conflict of interest was, however, somewhat surprising. To say that I was gobsmacked* is a bit of an understatement, but as this had been my main reason for not accepting the task, I felt honour bound to do the review and make a recommendation.

So what exactly is a conflict of interest and how worried should we be about their potential to influence our responses in a scientific context? Here are a couple of definitions that I gleaned from the web.

A situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest.

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/conflict-of-interest.html#ixzz3tjt5c5l7

The real or apparent conflict between one’s personal interest in a matter and one’s duty to another or to the public in general regarding the same matter.

Webster’s New World Law Dictionary © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
So pretty clear, if there is a connection, personal or business, with the person(s) that you are asked to comment on, or their work, then you have a potential conflict of interest.

I am, as some of you may know, Editor-in-Chief of Annals of Applied Biology and was, until last year, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity, so potential conflicts of interest have been part of my life for many years.  How do we handle this as Editors and Handling Editors? In the letter that our Handling Editors at Annals send out to potential reviewers we state:

If you agree to referee the paper please declare to the handling editor if you have:

published papers, submitted grant proposals, or supervised students with an author. It is essential that you declare this information before reviewing the manuscript.”

So very clear what we mean by a conflict of interest here. But given the shortage of people willing to review papers and note that it is common practice to initially invite four to get the minimum two that we aspire to for a fair and balanced decision, how fussy can we afford to be? On one memorable occasion, I once had to approach thirteen potential reviewers before I found two willing victims!  In the UK, if you are in a specialist field such as applied entomology, you are almost certain to know just about everyone who works in that area, either personally or by reputation.  Given the virtual insistence these days by the national grant funders on collaborative projects, you also have a fairly high probability of having been in joint grant application with many of them as well.  Most journals now ask for suggestions of preferred and non-preferred reviewers when you submit a paper.  These are highly likely to be people you know personally, and your preferred reviewers are also unlikely to be people you think will regard your work unfavourably.  Is this a conflict of interest?  As an Editor you can take notice of these names, often ignoring them because you suspect that the preferred reviewers have been chosen because of the possibility of them delivering a favourable review.  You then have a decision to make as to which reviewers to select; do you read through the references and see who has been cited most and pick them, do you resort Web of Science and look for publications in a similar area involving the same systems or use the keywords in your particular Editorial manager system?  Whichever way you go you have a high chance of picking people who know the author(s) and/or have worked with them at some stage, but if you want an expert opinion you are pretty much stuck with those choices.  It is further complicated by the fact that some people are more likely to respond in the affirmative than others, so your choice is narrowed still further.

As a potential reviewer receiving an invitation from a journal that doesn’t ask you for as much information as the Annals of Applied Biology does (looking back at last year’s 50+ requests to review that I receive, it seems that we at the Annals are much more up-front in this respect than other journals) what constitutes a conflict of interest?  Even if you don’t know the author personally, which if they are from the USA** or other country where entomologists are still fairly numerous is quite likely, does the fact that they have cited you a lot constitute a conflict of interest?  A favourable review may ensure publication and add to your citation index.  On the other hand, if the paper doesn’t cite you when you feel it should, is that also a conflict of interest and what about when it cites you unfavourably, are you sure  that you will write your review impartially? Should we also ask if you have received a favourable or non-favourable disclosed review from the author(s) for one of your own papers?  I can’t help but think that having had a favourable review from someone, you are, despite how impartial you consider yourself to be, likely to look more kindly on a paper from that person than one from someone who has said that your paper should be rejected.  I know there are a number of people who feel that open review is the way forward but I am not the only one that thinks it just adds to the conflicts of interest dilemma.

Leaving those issues aside. What about if you have answered yes to the questions posed by the Annals in that you have published papers, submitted grant proposals, or supervised students with an author?  Interestingly I have just noticed that we don’t ask whether the potential reviewer has supervised or taught one of the authors.  As someone whom to date, has supervised 50 PhD students, more than 130 MSc project students and about 150 undergraduate project students, not to mention the 1000+ students whose names I learnt when teaching them, this is yet another area of potential conflict of interest. The last time I co-authored a paper with my PhD supervisor was 1989, is that still a conflict of interest in 2016? I freely admit that I have reviewed more than one of his papers and even recommended rejection once or twice (I don’t think he reads my blog :-)).

I am not saying that our current review system is fatally flawed, in fact I think it works quite well and feel that the open reviewing system advocated by some has just as many, if not more, opportunities for potential conflicts of interest to arise. See this post by Dynamic Ecology which puts the case for pre-publication review very clearly.

When does it stop being a conflict of interest to review a paper by one of your former PhD students? Five years, ten years or longer?  I will put my hand up now and admit that I have reviewed papers written by former students, but only after what I consider a decent five-year interval since the last co-authorship.  What about co-authors who were not students or RAs? Often you end up on multi-author papers arising from working groups, do you apply the same rules in those cases when asked to review a paper or a grant proposal?  I don’t but should I?

When it comes to PhD examinations the situation is even more acute, at least in my case. I have examined about 50 PhD students and had 48 of my own examined in return.  As far as I can recall, of those that I have examined only three of them have been students of people who I didn’t know personally.   Of the students of mine examined, I think three of them were by people I didn’t know personally (these were bird projects), but the co-supervisor knew them.  This of course is totally understandable within the UK system, where the usual PhD viva panel consists of an internal examiner, an external examiner and, increasingly more common, an independent chair.  You are hardly likely to choose examiners you don’t know to give your students a grilling.  You choose someone who is fair and has a good reputation, which generally speaking means someone you know personally.   Given the paltry fee paid by UK universities for a PhD examination***, friends are much more likely to agree to do the job than total strangers 🙂

Should we have a system where only examiners who have no personal contact with the supervisors are allowed? This would almost certainly mean that in the UK, all examiners would have to come from overseas; I suspect that the Universities would baulk at the increased costs associated with such a system.  They are already very stingy when it comes to travel and accommodation costs for UK examiners so the added cost of getting someone from across the water is unlikely to appeal.

Where does this leave us? Not much further forward I suspect. I think, that as scientists, we all regard ourselves as being able to decide if, and when a real conflict of interest is likely to arise and would, I hope, inform the person(s) requesting the review of the pertinent facts.

Conflict4

Footnotes

*for non-native English speakers or English speakers from other parts of the world, a literal translation would be “like being hit unexpectedly in the mouth” 🙂

**although I have just noticed that a paper I have accepted an invitation to review from an American journal, has, hidden away in the middle of the author list, someone who did their PhD in the same research group as me at the same time, and with whom I have spent many a night drinking pints of Courage beer in The Mitre pub, on the Earlham Road in Norwich 🙂

***approximately £200 if you are lucky – say the viva takes 3 hours minimum, plus you have to read the thesis, say 150 pages, so even if you read very quickly you are looking at another 5 hours minimum, more likely closer to ten hours as you have to take notes as you go along, then add on an hour for the report and four hours travel time, that makes a total of 17 hours or so giving you an hourly rate of about £12, and that is before tax 🙂

 

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External Examining – what is it and why do it?

Magnifying glass

I am now in my first year as the external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree programme at University College Dublin (UCD).  Some of you will know what this entails from personal experience, others will not even be aware that the process exists.  For my sins I have been involved in external examining university courses since 1997.  So exactly what does being an external examiner involve and why do I do it?

According to the UCD handbook ….

“Extern (sic) Examiners play a vital role in assisting the University in fulfilling its obligations of assuring the academic standards and integrity of its modules leading to awards.

1.2. Extern Examiners provide an important consultative and advisory function in supporting the development of modules as well as the enhancement of teaching, learning and assessment practices.

1.3. UCD appoints Extern Examiners that are internationally recognised experts in their subject areas and are from institutions with the highest academic reputations.”

Looking across UK universities and reading their descriptions of the duties of external examiners we find a common message that as an external examiner your duties involve the review of  all summative assessment (ie check that the exam papers are fair and understandable) prior to students being assessed and the requirement to submit an annual report, based upon your professional judgement, about  a number of aspects of the programme.  These being answers to the following questions; are the academic standards set for the programme awards appropriate, how rigorous are the assessment processes, are the students assessed fairly and equitably and are the standards and student achievements comparable with those at other similar institutions.  You are also asked to identify examples of good practice and to suggest areas where improvements or changes would be beneficial.

I got involved with external examining purely by accident; back in 1997 I was asked to validate a new degree programme in Life Sciences at what was then The Roehampton Institute of Education, now Roehampton University.   Validating a degree programme involves assessing the course materials, programme specifications, learning outcomes, projected demand, resource availability, goodness of fit to other programmes etc., etc.  Having agreed that there was a case for them to start the new programme I found myself two years later being asked if I would like to be the external examiner!  Obviously, having validated the degree in the first place I felt that it would be churlish to refuse 😉

I have since that first appointment been an external examiner at the University of Leeds (BSc Biological Sciences), York University (Environmental Sciences (Undergraduate and Masters), University College London (BSc Biology), Writtle College (MSc Conservation Management), University of Cumbria (MSc Forest Ecosystem Management and Conservation Biology) and now BSc Zoology at UCD.   I have also validated and re-validated several degrees at other universities but managed to suggest alternative external examiners for those 😉

Appointments are usually made for three years but in many cases extended to four years and very occasionally to five.  So what does it actually involve in practice?  Before your annual, or in some cases biennial visit, you will be sent exam papers to check if the questions are appropriate and to proof-read (you will be amazed at how many spelling and grammatical mistakes can creep into exam papers).  You should also receive module descriptors and the material that students are given before being set assignments and also details of how scripts are graded and marks allocated.  Some places will send you examples of course work and student project dissertations before your visit so that you can make a start on your evaluation ahead of time.  On arrival at the Department, where you will spend the next two to three days,  you should be allocated a space (a secure office/room) where you will be faced with a pile of paperwork to go through.  This can vary greatly, depending on the number of students in a cohort and the number of assessments that count towards the final degree mark.  Those programmes where all years of study contribute to the final grade will have more for you to look at.  Your main duties usually involve examining the paperwork associated with those students graduating in that year, so final year exam scripts, examples of coursework assignments and of course their final year project dissertations/theses.  My UCD pile was about average.

Scripts Dublin 2014 compressed

When I first started as an external examiner,  exit vivas for students were fairly wide-spread and in some cases were used to moderate the degree results of individual students.  This practice has pretty much disappeared and in fact it is now rare to actually get to talk to students on a one-one basis. I totally agree that it was unfair to classify a student’s degree on the basis of a twenty-minute interview, but on the other hand feel that you learn a great deal about the course by talking to students about their projects and experiences.  The staff who deliver a course look at things from a very different viewpoint than those who are on the receiving end.  At some universities students are invited along to an informal gathering with the external examiner(s) (drinks and nibbles provided as an inducement) so that at least some idea of what the students think can be gained; unfortunately take-up can be very low and those who do turn up are certainly not a random sample.   At many universities now, final grades are not changeable and final degree outcomes are determined by an algorithm.  The practice of speaking up at the final exam board in the hopes of moving a student from one grade to another is a thing of the past, and perhaps rightly so as it was very subjective and dependent on the student having a passionate advocate.  Now, if you as an external feel that items within a module were over-marked or under-marked, you are there in an advisory position and not in an executive position, and if any changes to marks are made it will be for the module and not for individual students.

At UCD I was able to talk face to face with half the zoology cohort,  an experience that I found interesting, informative and enjoyable and which did  not have any life-changing effects on the students.  Their final marks were not affected.

At the end of your visit you will be invited along to the Final Examination Board where the marks are presented to the assembled faculty and you will be invited to say a few words about general standards and highlight any concerns that you wish to be addressed before your next visit.  You should also highlight the good things that you noticed and say thank you for the hospitality that you will have received.   Incidentally you will also have to provide a written report to the host university before you receive your fee although you do generally get your travel expenses back fairly promptly.

So why do I agree to be an external examiner?  First,  I find it very useful to be able to compare practices across institutions, I often find examples of good practice which I take note of and apply in my own teaching or tell others in my home department about.  Sometimes I come across great exam questions which I shamelessly borrow to inflict on my own students!  Secondly I think that it is something one should do as a ‘ good academic citizen’  and finally,  you are also usually well treated by the staff of the Department you are visiting and get a least one opportunity to be wined and dined and to meet staff members in an informal setting.

So if you are asked to become an external examiner say yes.  It is not that onerous and it is certainly educational.  If you do decide to become an external examiner I have three pieces of advice for you.

Don’t ask for things to be changed just for the sake of it – for example, the way exam questions are posed in a particular way is generally for a reason.  The people who taught the course know what the students are expecting.  I remember one external examiner asking me to reword an exam question which I did, the result of which was that the students did not answer the question because they did not ‘get’ what it was about.

Don’t be antagonistic – I treat external examining much the same way as I do PhD examining – a two-way process that should have positive outcomes for all involved.  You might not agree with the way things are done in the Department, but find out why it is done that way; if there is no reasonable answer then gently point out why you think it would be better done your way.  If you have valid criticisms to make do so, but do make sure to mention the things you thought were excellent.  Talk to staff and find out if there are things that they feel should be changed by the university or Department.  As the external examiner your report is read by the university administrators and usually published on the University’s website.    You do have the power to make a difference.

Finally, talk to the students.  Even if the Department you are visiting does not have student vivas, ask them to arrange a meeting, either with a group or preferably individual students, so that you can hear things from both sides.

Change will not happen instantaneously, even if you feel it should.   Look, listen and learn and it will be a pleasant three or four years for you and your hosts and at the end of it all you will hopefully feel that you have achieved something worthwhile.

 

 

 

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Sitting in judgment – Calling the shots – Peer review – A personal view

I have just finished refereeing four papers from four different journals with different approaches to the peer review system. As a result I now feel moved to share my thoughts about the way journals ask us to review papers. In earlier posts I have written about my experiences as an editor and also about why and how many papers we should referee as good citizens of the scientific community. The four journals for which I have just acted as a reviewer are Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, Physiological Entomology, and Journal of Insect Behavior and Animal Behaviour. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution operates a completely open review process and allows authors, should they wish, to solicit their own reviews in exchange for a reduced processing charge. As a reviewer you can, as well as submitting your review, submit a response article free of charge. As someone who is usually unable to publish in open access journals as my usual funding sources rarely, if ever, provide funding for page and processing charges, I took the opportunity to do so and am now waiting to see if my offering will get published 😉 Animal Behaviour on the other hand operates a double-blind system where the referee is supposedly as blind as the author(s).

Blind author and referee

This is achieved by removing the names and addresses of the authors. As however, the references and acknowledgements are usually left untouched, it is, in my field, comparatively easy to work out who wrote the paper with some confidence.  The other two journals give you the option of revealing your identity should you so wish.

I have for my sins reviewed a lot of papers over the years; sadly as a data nerd, I have kept a record not only of how many papers I review a year but for which journals (I really should get a life).

Papers refereed

In all those years last week was the first time that I have ever unambiguously revealed my identity. I say unambiguously, because, during the 1990s when Oikos used to give you the opportunity to sign your review, I did use to scrawl my totally illegible signature at the bottom of the page, confident that no-one could actually read it! So why do I opt for anonymity when reviewing papers?

I am confident that I would write exactly the same review if I did it openly and in fact sometimes I am sure that the authors can guess that I was the reviewer. I choose to be anonymous because I feel that a generally open review system would tend to make some, if not most reviewers, pull their punches. How many young post-docs would dare to reject a paper by an established academic knowing that they could be on their next interview panel or reviewing their next grant application or be the editor of the journal they submit their next paper to?  We are all supposed to be dispassionate scientists able to take constructive criticism, but even the most laid-back of us will probably remember the name of the young whippersnapper who dared reject our paper.  I am pretty sure that when I was at the beginning of my career I would never have dared criticize, let alone reject, a Southwood or Lawton paper in an open review system.   As an Editor who occasionally submits papers to my own journal I have to take this ‘fear’ factor into account and have rejected my own papers when for other authors I would have allowed a resubmission.  In my experience as an Editor, I rarely see reviewers using the confidential comments to the editor section to say something very different from the review they have provided for the authors to see. So I think that the traditional system works pretty well.

I also think that by revealing our identities to authors we could end up with a you scratch my back I will scratch yours situation in that if A gives B a favourable review then B will in turn give A one back and the whole system will be subverted.

So in conclusion until someone proves otherwise I will continue to remain anonymous except in exceptional circumstances.

 

Post script

For a less personal and more scientific viewpoint see this article

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/information-culture/2014/04/19/introduction-to-traditional-peer-review/

and for an alternative viewpoint see this from Dynamic Ecology

https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/tag/peer-review/

Post-post script

In case you are wondering why I was so lazy in 1991, I was desperately applying for jobs in the university sector.

 

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Referees – Your Journals Need You!

Editor-in-Chief

I have thought about writing on this subject for a while but it was this Tweet from Britt Koskella http://brittkoskella.wordpress.com/ on the 19th November 2013 that finally stirred me into action.

Britt 1

As an editor (I am for my sins, Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1752-4598)  I love people like Britt.  It is such a joy to be able to select their names from the journal data base and assign them a manuscript, knowing that nine times out of ten they will accept my invitation to review a manuscript and that on that tenth occasion they will very kindly suggest an alternative (sometimes two or three) reviewer who will also almost certainly accept my invitation.  Britt Koskella, I love you and those like you 🙂  My reply to Britt was as follows:

Britt 2

You will have noticed that I confessed to doing too many myself; in fact in addition to those manuscripts that I read as an Editor I do on average, forty to fifty reviews for other journals.  Like Britt I have a hard time saying no.  I am getting better though – I actually turned down two this month 😉

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the peer review process in general with a number of journals adopting an open mass review process and other journals opting for the as long as the science is sound it is publishable approach.  We are, however, mainly, despite its many flaws, still operating on the traditional two referees per paper peer review system.

So how many papers should you referee asks Britt?  The general rule of thumb to entitle you to call yourself a good citizen is to agree to referee two papers for every paper that you submit as that is the minimum number of referees that you would expect to look at your own papers.  To be on the safe side and to feel that you are making a real contribution to your community, I would suggest that a 3:1 ratio is very acceptable.  In my experience as an Editor of two journals and as an Associate Editor on three other journals, there are a number of people who referee many more papers than that and a disturbingly large number of prolific authors whom, as far as I can see, never ever agree to referee papers.

As an Editor, what do I want from a referee?  In a nut-shell, someone who reads the paper thoroughly, checks first that the experimental design and statistical analysis are sound; if the experiment is not designed properly then it doesn’t matter how well the paper is written, it is not worth proceeding with; that the appropriate literature is cited (and by this I don’t just mean the referee’s own papers) and that the paper fits the remit of the journal and advances the subject area significantly.  I also do not want the referee to say how good the paper is in the comments to authors section and to tell me in the confidential comments that it is crap.  If you don’t like it then have the guts to tell the author why, don’t leave it up to the poor Editor to try to explain why he/she is rejecting their paper despite the apparently favourable comments they can see in the referee’s reports.  I also expect total impartiality; you might not agree with what you read but unless the methodology is flawed that is not a reason to reject the paper.  Be open-minded and fair above all.  If you are rejecting a paper, be constructive, authors at the start of their career are not as resistant or as resilient as old timers http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/are-you-resistant-or-resilient-in-the-face-of-rejection/.  Above all be fair, write your report bearing in mind the sort of review that you as an author would like to receive.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you and that goes double for those of you who don’t referee as many papers as you should!  I am very tempted sometimes to do an instant reject on authors who have turned down my invitation to review a paper, especially if I have just accepted one of theirs.

Post script

I used to run a course for PhD students about getting published and it always used to amaze them that decisions on whether papers were published or not was dependent on the opinions of two to three people.  My response was that if you think that is bad, decisions about grant funding are often made with just as few opinions and those decisions have even greater implications for career prospects.

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