The Peer Review Process

Hello again and welcome to another episode of “ten reasons not to go into academia”!  Today we are going to talk about the peer review process for publishing scientific articles in top tier chemistry journals.  Fair warning- this is a long post.  I’m pretty heated.

Ok, here we go.  The peer review process.

1) Conduct science.
2) Write article detailing science.
3) Submit article to your journal of choice.
4) Three scientists (of the chief editors choosing) will receive and anonymously review your article.
5) Your article will be returned to you along with the reviews and the decision of the committee.  This decision will be either: accepted with no revisions, accepted with minor/major revisions, or rejected.
6) Respond appropriately either with revisions, or re-submission elsewhere.

Let me continue by saying how incredibly important I think the peer review process is.  It truly holds us accountable as scientists.  We often develop tunnel vision about a project the longer we work on it.  We stop seeing the importance of the little things like eating normally, having an active sex life, taking care of our bodies, and bathing.  It can begin to feel like our whole lives are wrapped up in collecting that one additional piece of data, or in boosting that one result so that it is just a little bit better.  We are scientists.  This is what we do- and we think it is the most important thing there is.  By extension, we think the projects we are working on are the most important things there are.  It is the nature of the beast.

The peer review process helps us to see our work in the eyes of another scientist.  It helps us to appreciate not only the toil and hard work that goes into good science, but also to see where our contribution fits in the grand scheme of things.  What we hear from our peer reviews is not always what we want.   Often, the reviews we receive are like a massive tidal wave of reality fucking up our beach birthday party.  They sting.  They burn.  Sometimes it feels like we are drowning.  They are also constructive, insightful, and usually correct.  They help us to improve our science- even if it means our article doesn’t get into our first journal of choice.  Even if it means that we drink heavily the night we receive them.

All that said, I just went through the toughest review process I have ever been involved in.

Professor Roald Hoffmann turns 80 years old this year.  Roald Hoffmann shared the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1981 with Professor Kenichi Fukui (the first Asian scientist to ever win a Nobel prize in chemistry) for “for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions”.  Two of my three graduate/postgraduate advisors did their postdoctoral fellowships with Professor Hoffmann.  He is, for all intents and purposes, my academic grandfather.  My post doctoral advisor asked me to help write a perspective essay in Professor Hoffmanns’ honor.

When I was done hyperventilating about this opportunity, I set to work.  I dug through literature.  I tried to learn as much as I could about the work Professor Hoffmann did that led to the Nobel prize.  I researched how the work has shaped the field of organic chemistry as we know it.  I talked with my lab mates, friends, colleagues, and family about this project and its implications.  This paper is different than any other scientific paper I have ever written.  It is not a simple reporting of facts- it’s a dissection of data and a personal interpretation.  It’s the first time I have tried to write my opinions about science in a format meant for peer review.

I even drew a figure for this paper.  Not “used ChemDraw to make a pretty picture”.  Not “calculated some abstract structure and made a pretty graphical representation using rendering software”.  More like “sat down with pencils and paper and made seven versions of the same figure until me, my co-author, and my advisor all agreed that it was perfect”.

All this to say – it was fucking terrifying.  Not only is Professor Hoffmann a big fucking deal in my field, he’s in my academic lineage.  This has been one of those “here’s the 2 million dollar glass ball, now don’t fucking drop it” kind of scenarios for me.  And so… we got the paper written.  The goal of such an essay is to inspire discussion and spark interest by offering a unique vantage point.  I did my best to make it informative, clean, unique, and fun.

A month goes by.  The reviews come in.  Reviewer 1 and 2 offer extremely positive interpretations of the essay.  They love our tone and candor.  They provide helpful criticism about a coupe topics that could be added.  Overall, I feel like based on their comments we have achieved our intended goal with this essay.

Reviewer 3.  Oh reviewer 3.  If you are a scientist, I sincerely hope that you never have to go through a battle like the one we went through with reviewer 3.

I will not go into details about the contents of reviewer 3’s written report.  I will, however, tell you that this essay was 4 pages long and I received a 7 page line by line asshole shredding review from this particular reviewer.  Through the course of his (I’m just picking a pronoun for simplicity’s sake here) review he proceeds to say that our manuscript “…cannot be accepted for publication – not in REDACTED nor elsewhere. It cannot be improved but must be written completely anew“.  Yeah, it was in bold.  Many of reviewer 3’s (henceforth referred to Dr. Fuckoff) comments were in a similar vein – read: unhelpful, condescending, and in many cases untrue.  I wrote Dr. Fuckoff (and the chief editor) the politest possible rebuttal letter which was 11 pages long in which I respond to every single fucking point he had by either making a suggested change or providing a well reasoned argument for why I was not doing so.  Another couple weeks go by.  We receive a second round of reviews also from Dr. Fuckoff – now 13 pages long.  Dr. Fuckoff rips my rebuttal apart and maintains his original stance that “This manuscript cannot be accepted for publication – not in REDACTED nor elsewhere. It cannot be improved but must be written completely anew“.  I am baffled at how to proceed.  I take a week to collect my shit.  I make more changes to the manuscript and respond to Dr. Fuckface (when did I start calling him that…oh well) with what is now a 17 page letter.  I will remind you that the essay was only 4 pages long.  We resubmit.

Today- I received the email from the deputy editor that our manuscript has been accepted.    Vindication is mine.

Did Dr. Fuckwad have some helpful suggestions?  Yes.  Did we implement his helpful suggestions?  You’re fuck right we did.  That’s the point of peer review.  Did Dr. Fucktwat make me cry?  Yes.

If you a reviewer it is your job as an expert in the field to be helpful, constructive, insightful, critical, and fair.  It is not your job to deliver what feels like a personal attack on the authors.  Maybe I took this more personally than some other reviews I have received in the past.  That is entirely possible.  But I implore you, if you are ever given the chance to peer review a scientific article: please remember that scientists are people too.  If we miss important points- help us to find them.  If you feel our work isn’t up to par, by all means let us know.  You don’t have to be a dick about it.

In the end, it’s my name on the publication and not Dr. McFuckhead.  And to that I say: how do you like them apples Dr. Fuckdouche?






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