down with referees, up with ???

Statisfaction made me realise I had missed the latest ISBA Bulletin when I read what Julyan posted about Larry’s tribune on a World without referees. While I agree on many of Larry’s points, first and foremost on his criticisms of the refereeing process which seems to worsen and worsen, here are a few items of dissension…

The argument that the system is 350 years old and thus must be replaced may be ok at the rethoretical level, but does not carry any serious weight! First, what is the right scale for a change: 100 years?! 200 years?! Should I burn down my great-grand-mother’s house because it is from the 1800’s and buy a camping-car instead?! Should I smash my 1690 Stradivarius and buy a Fender Stratocaster?! Further, given the intensity and the often under-the-belt level of the Newton vs. Leibniz dispute, maybe refereeing and publishing in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society should have been abolished right away from the start. Anyway, this is about rethoric, not matter. (Same thing about the wine store ellipse. It is not even a good one:  Indeed, when I go to a wine store, I have to rely on (a) well-known brands; (b) brands I have already tried and appreciated; (c) someone else’s advice, like the owner, or friends, or Robert Parker…. In the former case, it can prove great or disastrous. But this is the most usual way to pick wines as one cannot hope [dream?] to sample all wines in the shop.)

My main issue with doing away with referees is the problem of sifting through the chaff. The amount of research documents published everyday is overwhelming. There is a maximal amount of time I can dedicate to looking at websites, blogs, twitter accounts like Scott Sisson’s and Richard Everitt’s, and such. And there clearly is a limited amount of trust I put in the opinions expressed in a blog (e.g., take the ‘Og where this anonymous X’racter writes about everything, mostly non-scientific stuff, and reviews papers with a definite bias!) Even keeping track of new arXiv postings sometimes get overwhelming. So, Larry’s “if you don’t check arXiv for new papers every day, then you are really missing out” means to me that missing arXiv for a few days and I cannot recover. One week away at an intense workshop or on vacations and I am letting some papers going by forever, even though I carry them in my bag for a while…. Noll’s suggestion to publish only on one’s own website is even more unrealistic: why should anyone bother to comment on poor or wrong papers, except when looking for ‘Og’s fodder?! So the fundamental problem is separating the wheat from the chaff, given the amount of chaff and the connected tendency to choke on it! Getting rid of referees and journals to rely on depositories like [the great, terrific, essential] arXiv forces me to also rely on other sources for ranking, selecting, and eliminating papers. Again with a component of arbitrariness, subjectivity, bias, variation, randomness, peer pressure, &tc. In addition, having no prior check of papers means reading a new paper a tremendous chore as one would have to check the references as well, leading to a sort of infinite regress… and forcing one to rely on reputation and peer opinions, once again! And imagine the inflation in reference letters! I already feel I have to write too many reference letters at the moment, but a world without (good and bad) journals would be the Hell of non-stop reference letters. I definitely prefer to referee (except for Elsevier!) and even more being a journal editor, because I can get an idea of the themes in the field and sometimes spot new trends, rather than writing over and over again about an old friend’s research achievements or having to assess from scratch the worth of a younger colleague’s work…

Furthermore, and this is a more general issue, I do not believe that the multiplication of blogs, websites, opinion posts, tribunes, &tc., is necessarily a “much more open, democratic approach”: everyone voicing an opinion on the Internet does not always get listened to and the loudest ones (or most popular ones) are not always the most reliable ones. A complete egalitarian principle means everyone talks/writes and no one listens/reads: I’d rather stick to the principles set by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society!

Anyway, thanks to Larry for launching a worthwhile debate into discovering new ways of making academia a more rational and scientific place!

2 Responses to “down with referees, up with ???”

  1. […] Chopin sent me this piece after reading Larry’s radical proposal. And my post on it. This is a preliminary version, so feel free to […]

  2. Dan Simpson Says:

    By and large, most of my papers come back from reviewers better than they went in. Even when I disagree with a recommendation (such as the standard suggestion to “try this on real data”) implementing it rarely makes things worse, and sometimes, against expectations, makes things better.

    Of course, every now and again you get an idiot and sometimes idiotic reviewers lead a paper to be rejected (my favourite was one who claimed that a widely used method did not and could not exist). While this is always good for a few hours of impotent rage, it happens in Grant reviews as well and Wasserman does not advocate removing those! What would be nice would be for the review process to be faster, but in the end we all have limited amounts of time and a conscientious review takes *a lot* of time, especially if you have a “boundary case”.

    I think the wide dissemination of research papers is a good thing (obviously!), keeping up-to-date copies of all (ALL!!) papers and technical reports on arXiv (and your personal website) feels like the correct mechanism to do this.

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