Jul 1, 2016

Vlada’s Point: Peer Review II — An Idea

Contributing Editor Vlada Limic has been thinking about ways in which the peer review process could be improved. She writes:

A young postdoc enters a renowned senior professor’s office one day. The master is sighing over a printout of an article, and finally says 1: “I have read this paper in detail, I checked that the argument is entirely correct line for line. But if you’d ask me what it is, I would not be able to tell… and now I must write a report!” More sighs follow. The apprentice is taken aback by this striking piece of news, and thinks, “Could it be that with all that knowledge, experience, wisdom, creativity and problem-solving capacity, one still faces these challenges?”

This scene took place more than sixteen years ago, but it could have equally been 32 years ago, or yesterday. While most of us know that this is by far not the saddest ending of a peer review round, it is already significant.

Now imagine a slightly different world in which, along with all the manuscript-central capacities, a free “self-service web booth” tool exists. Each anonymous peer-reviewer 2, novice and veteran alike, has the option of using it whenever in need of contacting the author(s) about the article under review. The attribute anonymous is crucial—if the peer review were done openly today, like it was done 100 or 70 years ago, we would not need much more than the phone and the internet. Even hand-written “snail mail” would typically work quite well.

Multiple changes in overall scientific valorization seem to be required before anonymity 3 could be lifted here.

So taking the anonymity for granted, I ask you again: imagine having access today to the above web booth. It’s easy if you can!

Consider your most recent peer review assignment. The topic is exciting, the paper solves an important/interesting problem, you know some but not all of the concepts or techniques used. The task looks like a great opportunity for learning.

However, suppose that once you start reading the preprint in detail, you realize that either you are misunderstanding the logic, or there is a non-trivial gap in the argument in Lemma 2, which (as you keep reading) propagates to Lemma 7, and finally undermines the proof of the main result.

Are you missing something, or is it really a gap? How important is it? Can it be fixed?

Thinking about it harder, in brief but intensive intervals spaced over several weeks, and finally finding the time to write that one- to two-page report to the editors explaining your concerns, is not the only option.

You can go to the web booth platform, open there a secured (login/password protected) discussion dedicated to your assignment, simultaneously invite the author(s) to it and notify the editorial board, and finally ask your questions directly, without having to disclose your identity (or that of the AE handling the submission).

While the AE will not be able to participate in the discussion (unless they open it themselves), they can confirm (if needed) that your web booth invitation issued to the authors is genuine.

Via your secure private channel, you can exchange text messages (posts), pdf, jpeg (and perhaps other format) files as attachments with the author team, while staying anonymous. The entire electronic discussion can be printed out at any time by either party. As usual, if a login and/or a password is lost, they can be easily recovered. Each participant is notified each time a new post by the other(s) arrives. The discussion stays active as long as something was posted within the last so-many-months (depending on storage space), otherwise (followed by several email notifications to the participants) it gets erased.

Now imagine, for a change, that you are an author of the above article under review, and that you have just received a one or two page long report from the journal describing how your Lemma 2, then Lemma 7, and finally the main theorem are plainly wrong. And indeed, one of the hypotheses was missing or mistyped, the inclusion or correction of which makes Lemma 2 and everything else sound. But hey, the machine already pushed the editors into a decision about your submission: it is requires major revision at best. A letter of response with detailed explanations is the least that is now expected from you in order to put the review back in motion 4.

Would you not prefer to have been promptly and directly contacted by the reviewer?

My final point for today: the just described communication tool already exists, and in more than one incarnation. None of them is alas openly and freely available to general academic community. Still, there is hope on the horizon…


1. [The words are approximate, the meaning is exact.]
2. […regardless of the journal, or publisher (s)he has committed to serving.]
3. […which protects the reviewer from potential open or disguised retaliation, in case their report includes reservations or disapproval.]
4. [This “ping-pong” can go on for several rounds, the process could well last for years.]

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