The Taboo Topic of Reviewer Paper Killing in the Sciences
I love the term (not the practice of) ‘chartacide’ (paper killing) that is used in the Knoepfler blog’s ‘elephant in the lab series’ on taboo topics in the sciences: http://bit.ly/1SEfLFc. As a medievalist who has worked with charters and banned texts, I was immediately reminded of folios torn from manuscripts, images rubbed away and pages with large ‘X’s scrawled across them. Modern ideals of free speech and intellectual freedom in scientific and academic circles might suggest that such censorship practices have themselves met a timely death, but in some cases this may be a misconception.
Using the voice of the infamous Doctor No, the Knoepfler blog lists and describes a dozen techniques for committing successful chartacide while acting as a peer reviewer for a scientific journal. The tone is satirical, of course, with the goal being to discourage rather than encourage reviewers who adopt such techniques for personal and petty reasons that have little or nothing to do with the communication of valuable research and the advancement of science. The ‘dirty dozen’ provide many clues indicative of a Doctor No approach that authors and proofreaders can be alert to while considering peer reviews. The first two may seem painfully obvious and more matters of passive negligence than aggressive animosity, but they are extremely important: scientists and academics should not agree to review papers when impartiality is impossible or the time to prioritise the reviewing process is unattainable. An exhausted scholar with an axe to grind is unlikely to produce the kind of review that effectively evaluates the genuine contribution of a paper, and unwarranted (even unintentional) chartacide can all too easily be the result.
Unfortunately, chartacide via inappropriate peer reviewing can potentially keep knowledge from the eyes of readers more successfully than some medieval methods of censorship did. When, for instance, the medieval owner of a book satisfied the demands of censors simply by drawing an ‘X’ over a banned text, the text could still be read and might even have been rendered more appealing because of that tantalising ‘X.’ When modern reviewers prevent articles from being published for the wrong reasons, they may not always light the flames beneath authors, but there is no doubt that they can effectively silence learned voices that may be of great benefit to the larger scholarly community. The trick, then, is not to let them do so. If you have a piece of valuable academic or scientific work that has suffered a violent attack, do not give up. Reflect, resuscitate, revise, resubmit (to a different journal if necessary) and persist until it makes its way out there into the public eye. You and your readers will be the wiser for it, and the best possible revenge on a Doctor No (just in case you feel the need) is, after all, to publish the paper he or she worked so hard to kill.
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