Recognition For Review

I just found out that the second annual Peer Review Week is well underway. There are several online articles on the topic, perhaps best found via Twitter searches using #RecognizeReview or #PeerRevWk16, or via links at the link above.

This year’s theme thereof is Recognition For Review, and in that context it’s perfect timing, relative to a peer review post that I already had in mind. I don’t think there’s any question that the peer review process as a whole has very major problems, ones which greatly weaken the clarity, efficiency and reliability of the scientific process. These problems originate largely in the design of the review process, which in turn affect review execution. However, this reality doesn’t preclude the fact that thousands of people perform excellent review work, daily. And they’re not getting much credit for it either.

Some attention then, to one of the most interesting, important–and puzzling–reviews I’ve ever seen. Occasionally a paper comes out which is worth paying intense attention to, for reasons that go beyond just its technical content, and this is surely one in my opinion. The review and paper in question are publicly available at Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP). This was a long, involved review on a long, involved paper. If you have limited time to devote to this, go read Peter Thorne’s ICARUS article, a summary of his overall review experience.

The journal is one of a set of European Geophysical Union (EGU) journals that have gone to a completely open review process. The commenting process is online and open to anyone, although two or more official reviewers are also designated by the editor, who (unlike volunteer reviewers) may remain anonymous if they choose. For this open process alone the EGU deserves major recognition and gratitude, as it is arguably the single biggest step that can be taken to improve the peer review process. Everything has to be open.

There is a lot to say on this and I’ll start with the puzzling aspect of it. The article in question’s lead author is James Hansen, arguably still the most famous climate scientist in the world. Several of the reviews show that the article’s main claims are quite contentious, relative to the evidence and analysis presented, as summarized most completely by Thorne’s two reviews, the second of which–a phenomenal piece of review work–also summarizes Hansen et al’s responses (and non-responses) to the numerous reviewer comments, a job which presumably should really have fallen to the editor.

I’ve not yet worked all the way through everything, but you can’t read it and not wonder about some things. The authors didn’t have to submit their paper to an open review journal. So why did they? Did they assume the claims of the paper were largely non-contentious and it would thus slide smoothly through review? But given the clearly important claims, why not then submit to a highly prominent journal like Science or Nature for maximum attention and effect? Maybe they did, had it rejected and this was the second or third submission–I don’t know.

A second issue, one of several that did not sit at all well with Thorne, was the fact that Hansen et al. notified members of the press before submission, some of whom Thorne points out then treated it as if it were in fact a new peer reviewed paper, which it surely was not. When confronted on this point, Hansen was completely unapologetic, saying he would do the same thing again if given the chance, and giving as his reason the great importance of the findings to the world at large, future generations in particular. What? That response pretty well answers the question regarding his confidence in the main conclusions of the paper, and is disturbing in more than one way.

Thorne was also not at all pleased with Hansen’s flippant and/or non-responses to some of the review comments, and for this he took him severely to task for his general attitude, especially given the major weaknesses of the paper. The most important of the latter was the fact that there was no actual, model connection between the proposed processes driving rapid ice sheet melt, and the amount of fresh water flowing into the oceans to drive the rapid sea level rise that is the main claim of the paper. Rather, that flow was prescribed independently of the ice melt processes in what amounted to a set of “what if” scenarios more or less independent of the model’s ice melt dynamics. More importantly, this highly important fact was not clear and prominent: it had to be dug out by careful reading, and moreover, Hansen essentially denied that this was in fact the case.

There are major lessons here regarding conduct of peer review, how scientists should behave (senior scientists in particular), and scientific methodology. Unfortunately, I have no more time to give this right now–and I would give it a LOT more if I did. This is thus largely a “make aware” post. The paper and its review comprise a case study in many respects, and requires a significant commitment. I personally have not seen a more important paper review in a very long time, if ever. Peter Thorne, some of the other volunteer reviewers, and ACP, deserve recognition for this work.

Please do not fire off any uninformed comments. Thanks.

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