Posted by: wolf | June 10, 2008

Teh REview Prcess

When I submitted my first paper to a peer-reviewed journal, I was all anxious not only about the quality of the empirical methods and results, but also about language and style, even more since I am not a native speaker. Granted — being a non-native speaker actually might be to my credit since reviewers will probably be less rigorous once they realize where I come from. But believe me, I would take great pains with the stylistic quality of a paper just as well if I were to submit it to a journal published in German (my native tongue).

Now that I have been asked to review other’s manuscripts for scientific journals, I have to realize that other authors don’t always seem to be as thorough and diligent as I thought everyone in the scientific community would be. Before I submit a paper, I carefully go through it several times and I give it to colleagues or friends, in order to at least exclude the most obvious misspellings and wrong grammar, but I also ask the others to check the consistency and comprehensibility of the text. Today I was asked to review a short paper for a German journal in educational psychology, and that paper surely can’t have gone to an internal review process as described above. There were at least four spelling errors on each page, even one in the title, and above that, whole passages were barely understandable because of inconsistently used terms; for example, they wrote of a “correlation between course observation and competency gains”, which seems to imply that observing a course leads to an increase in competency, when they actually meant the correlation between some characteristic of the course that was observed and competency gains. And that wasn’t the only truly bad paper I had on my desk. In another paper, the authors were not only very careless with spelling and grammar, they also didn’t care to collect new data! Even if it is often beneficial and revealing to re-analyze data, in that case there weren’t any really new conclusions, just a difficult-to-interpret mumble-jumble of “looks as if interesting to pursue in further analyses, but not interesting enough for ourselves, the great re-analyzers of previously collected data”.

One of the people I have published with, a seasoned scientist, told me he has the impression that an increasing number of authors cease to make use of an “internal” revision process (i.e. asking your colleagues, friends, or whoever) before submitting a paper and tend to burden some of the more tedious work (making your paper readable instead of just putting together the results and some refs) on the reviewers. He said the reason might be that people say: “the paper will have to revised anyway, so why bother”. But that is not what I think the review process should be about. I want to think about the scientific quality of a paper: does that paper in any way advance our knowledge, our insights, our “Erkenntnisse” about the phenomena analyzed? have the authors proceeded in an acceptable way? Did they adhere to the methodolological standards? I do not want to think about how a paper I haven’t written myself can be made more readable and comprehensible.

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