Dr. Eduard Matito

Quantum Chemistry


Moral responsibility

Posted on May 14, 2011 at 8:03 AM

About a year ago I posted an entry in this blog discussing peer-review process. Today, via twitter I received an article from the editors of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) to draw our attention on "the moral responsibilities of our referees". Basically the article is critical with those researchers that refuse to write reviews or write a late report that it is of no use. After this article I get the impression JACS editors are mainly concerned about getting reports and getting them on time.

I was startled to see no reference to the quality of the report. They mention all sorts of malpractices (not answering, refusing to report, consulting othe rscientists without editor's consent, removing oneself for long periods from the list of active referees) but they do not mention about writing bad scientific reports. Maybe they do not want to put the researcher's competence into question. Fair enough; but then, they shouldn't mention about these other malpractices either; they all concern the 'moral responsibility' of the reviewers.

The editors should put as much effort on getting good-quality reports as they do on getting quick reports. Lousy reports are potentially more harmful than no report at all. Lousy reports often refuse or accept the paper directly, without much explanation of why the paper merits such qualification. Lousy reports make lousy papers published. If the author feels mistreated, he may appeal. However, experience indicates that his success will mostly depend on his relationship with the editor, rather than on the quality of his paper.

Let me mention a recent episode I experienced while reviewing for JPCA (ACS) and PCCP (RSC). I received a paper to review from these journals and they gave a deadline to respond (between two-three weeks). I read both papers and, in both cases, when I was about to write the report I received e-mail from the editor saying that my report was not longer necessary. In both cases it happened before the deadline. I was pissed. I get the impression editors contact more referees than necessary and then they discard those that come latest. Obviously, such practice increases the demand of referees.

Scientific publishing is business. Let's not forget it. Apparently any strategy is good to increase the publication speed. And if such strategy uses reviewer's time, it does not bear any cost to the journal.

If editors want ((good-quality)) quick reports, they should acknowledge referee's task. It does not make any difference how many papers I review every year. At most I get a Xmas card, lately not even that. I am not sure which should be the mechanism to reward the reviewers, but something has to be done.

I advocated here for responsible reviewer performance. My idea is that anyone should cover the demand of reports his papers generate; I guess this is (morally) responsible. But I also claim for editors' moral responsibility to acknowledge the referee's task and appreciate their time.


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