across the pond
A Column by Mike Clifford
"An Alternative View of Peer Review"
Despite living in an age where freedom of information is seen as a basic right, the workings of the university seem to be clouded in mystery even to undergraduate students. I was reminded of this recently when giving one of my tutees their exam results. This particular student had lived by the maxim that achieving a mark greater than the 40% required to pass a module represented time wasted in study which could have been better used for various extra-curricular pursuits. After receiving my congratulations at scraping through the first year of his studies, the scholar wished me an enjoyable summer break and left my office before I could disabuse him of the fanciful notion that I would be abandoning my academic studies for an entire summer of relaxation in a more peaceful clime. After all, I’m not in the Arts Faculty!
I think that part of my role in my interactions with students is to explain a little of the academic life; that lecturing represents only a fraction of my working week and that when I’m not at my desk, I may still be working hard on research or teaching somewhere, even if I’m out of the country. A colleague has a handy diagram on his office door with an arrow that can be rotated to indicate if he is “in”, “out”, or “in the lab”. I covet this very much, but would prefer to design my own, with additional categories including: “in but out”, “out but in”, “in, but busy” and “probably forgotten to move the arrow”.
One mystery which I try to explain to students is the dark art of publishing academic research. I expect that most readers will be familiar with the process whereby academics write up their research in the form of journal papers, send them to editors, who, after three or four months send the papers to reviewers. The reviewers will hopefully respond within a year or so with helpful comments after a couple of prompts from the editor, who will pass the reviews back to the author, with the hope that once some additional work has been carried out (usually citing work written by the reviewers) the paper will find its way into the published copy of the journal before the author has reached retirement age. When I describe this process to my students, I ask them how much they think the author will be paid, how much the reviewers will receive for their work and so on. Invariably the audience are surprised to hear that not only are the authors and reviewers not rewarded financially for their labours, but that the author’s University will pay the journal’s publishers for the privilege of having access to the original article. I end my homily with the words: “and that is why you should never take career advice from an academic.”
When explained to outsiders, the system of anonymous peer review seems to be very broken, but despite alternatives such as online publishing with invited comments, it’s a system that I think we’re stuck with. At this point, I’m tempted to share examples of peer reviews that I’ve received which have been factually incorrect, unfair and in one case libellous, but I’ll spare you the gory details. My own way to subvert the process when I’m asked to review is to end my comments with the following: “In common with all of my reviews, I’m happy for my name to be associated with these comments and passed to the authors.” In my experience, the most helpful peer reviews that I have received have been written in a similar spirit – I think some reviewers would think again before sending off an overly-critical review if the cloak of anonymity was removed.
Perhaps my favourite example of peer review is from the unexpected source of Groucho Marx, who it’s said replied to a hopeful author who had sent him a copy of his latest manuscript with: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.”
In his memoirs, Herbert Hoover, former Civil Engineer, and the 31st President of the United States of America stated that “the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade [the engineer] wants” and that’s maybe why academics get so upset about negative peer reviews – we just want to be loved. I’m reminded that unfortunately Herbert Hoover got more accolades for his engineering than for his presidential achievements.
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.