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Level-headed Peer Review

To the Editors:

I commend you for publishing bioethicist David B. Resnik’s essay “A Troubled Tradition” (January–February). During my career as an agronomist, I have reviewed many journal articles, book chapters, research proposals, et cetera. When I thought papers merited publishing, I usually remained anonymous and tried to help authors with whatever suggestions I could. But a few papers simply did not measure up. When that happened, I sent copies of my rejection letters to the senior authors, hoping that would help them put my position in perspective. That was fine with some editors. Others, insisting on anonymity, stopped sending me papers. That was helpful for my busy schedule.

More needs to be said about the consequences of the peer-review process. Consider young scientists. After working several years, they can have a parental attitude toward their early research. If that is rejected during a blind peer-review process, scientists can feel as if someone wounded their children. On top of that, the professional stakes are high. Employers frequently judge scientists by the number of publications they achieve. With so much in play, scientific societies must continuously audit the performance of their editors.

I always told graduate students and postdoctoral scientists that the peer-review process can be capricious and that if their paper was accepted, they should not get a big head. Along the same lines, if it was rejected, I told them not to let themselves be pulled down. Instead, I recommended that we work together to see what we could learn from the rejection.

Donald N. Baker
Starkville, MS

To the Editors:

David Resnik has discovered that editors and reviewers of scientific publications are all too human. I have done reviewing and editing in several disciplines and I can vouch that what he says is correct. Neither reviewers nor editors are as objective or fair as is naively assumed by many scientific outsiders and a few insiders.

There is no system that is going to solve this problem. The Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution and yet politicians have always figured out ways to get around it. So think about that when you vote for the officers of your scientific societies. Officers should think about it when they appoint editors. Editors should think about it when they recruit reviewers. And we all should think about it when we vote for our elected representatives.

In certain physical sciences, the publication of something incorrect or even fraudulent may have little consequence, if the topic is sufficiently trivial. In the medical sciences, however, people may start dying.

Foster Morrison
North Potomac, MD

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