I started my series on the sins of scientists last week with a piece called “Failure to Cite”.
“Failure to cite” refers to the practice whereby some scientists choose not to cite the papers of their competitors, to make their own seem more novel, or as payback to folks they consider their “enemies”.
In today’s second piece in this series I discuss the second deadly sin of science: killing other scientist’s papers or grants as a reviewer for non-scientific reasons.
I call it “paper or grant killing”.
I’ve blogged in the past about the prototypical hated reviewer “Dr. No” who many of us have encountered and who sets out to kill our paper. There’s a hilarious video of Hitler himself in the role of scientist freaking out over a mean “third reviewer” of his paper.
Sometimes it feels more like the reviewers of our papers or grants are the fascists or perhaps more accurately Machiavellians without science’s best interests at heart, but rather only their own selfish objectives at the forefront of their minds.
What is the backdrop that allows scientists to kill each other’s papers and grants?
Scientists are asked to review each other’s grants and papers on a regular basis.
With only the rarest of exceptions, such reviewing is single-blind in nature, meaning that while the authors of papers or grants does not know the identity of the reviewer, the reviewer knows their identities.
Reviewers are picked, in the case of papers, by the editors of journals. For grants, reviewers are members of study sections that review anywhere from three to more than a dozen grants.
The single-blind nature of the review of almost all grants and papers is felt to be important because reviewers believe it is valuable to not only review the science presented, but also evaluate the scientist behind it.
When grant and/or paper review works and it often does, it can be a wonder.
The reviewers sometimes not only accurately evaluate a paper or grant’s strengths and weaknesses, but they also help the scientists responsible for that work to make it better. Many times in my career reviewers have given me invaluable advice.
However sometimes the review process fails spectacularly. Either based on the identity of the author or perhaps because a paper is competing with their own work, reviewers sometimes turn to the dark side and essentially murder a paper or grant.
For non-scientific reasons, some scientists in the role of reviewers intentionally review a paper or grant so harshly that they know full well that they will either kill or, best case scenario, indefinitely delay it. In fact, that is their whole intention. This paper or grant killing seriously harms science because it blocks scientific progress for personal, selfish reasons.
For paper reviews, of course editors are supposed to supervise the review process and many do an exceptional job, but quite a few editors feel intimidated by big name reviewers and are unwilling to confront paper killing, allowing it to continue. I have literally had an editor tell me that if he agreed to review a revised version of my paper after one of the reviewers, a famous scientist, said they hated it that he’d be in trouble even though the other two reviewers were open to a revision and had good suggestions.
What the heck?
The implicit threat to editors by big-name scientist reviewers is that if they do not have their way with the review process then they may in the future take their high impact papers to other journals. Unfortunately, the threat works in many cases.
In the case of grant reviews, the process is supervised by a senior scientist such as a leader of a study section. In addition, while a grant author may not know with 100% certainty who reviewed his/her proposal, the study section roster as a whole is public knowledge. Often this leads to a guessing game by angry grant writers, who think they know who reviewed their grant and killed it. In the current funding climate where, for example, NCI funds for sure only those grants with a 7% score or lower (lower is better), it doesn’t take much in the way of unwarranted negativity from a reviewer to make sure a particular grant will not be funded.
Some scientists know key words to use to kill the papers or grants of their competitors. For example, they attack the work for lack of novelty or impact. For a paper they may ask for additional studies that would take 3 years to do.
In the end, scientists should strive to review papers or grant proposals fairly or recuse themselves if they cannot do it. However, if history is any guide, a certain fraction of scientists will routinely let non-scientific reasons lead them to kill other’s papers and grants unfairly. In so doing they harm science and society.