Like democracy, it’s not ideal, but compared the the alternatives–well it’s the best we can do. So I’m not out to undermine peer review. I’m out to undermine journals that masquerade as being peer reviewed.
A lot has been said about some of the new journals that keep cropping up, in particular the lack of scrupulous principles with regards to publishing. But I would like to point out a “loophole” of sorts, in a widely recognized journal.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, has been widely considered a prestigious journal in which to publish papers. Some of this aura, methinks, comes from the old days when publishing was not as difficult, and peer review was not as rigorous. National Academy of Science members were allowed to directly “contribute” manuscripts that were automatically accepted and published.
Sound anachronistic? It is. Sound like an evolutionary throwback to the Soviet 70s? It does. But hey–guess what? This system is still in place today. If you didn’t know that, you do now. And guess what again? It’s actually gotten WORSE. Indeed.
Now not only are “Contributors” (National Academy of Science members) allowed to submit 4 papers a year to be automatically accepted and published, but there is another even more disturbing track. I’ll come to that in a minute. But first, the direct contributions, as they are called.
From the PNAS submissions instructions:
An Academy member may submit up to four of his or her own manuscripts for publication per year. To contribute an article, the member must affirm that he or she had a direct role in the design and execution of all or a significant fraction of the work and the subject matter must be within the member’s own area of expertise. Contributed articles must report the results of original research. [SKIPPING A FEW LINES HERE ABOUT FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES, AND THEN...] When submitting using the contributed process, members must secure the comments of at least two qualified reviewers. Reviewers should be asked to evaluate revised manuscripts to ensure that their concerns have been adequately addressed. Members’ submissions must be accompanied by the names and contact information, including e-mails, of knowledgeable experts who reviewed the paper, along with all of the reviews received and the authors’ response for each round of review, and a brief statement endorsing publication in PNAS.
Did everyone catch that? The authors are responsible for obtaining their own reviews. They decide who the reviewers should be, contact them directly and obtain the critiques. Are you, as a PI, going to reject a National Academy of Science member’s manuscript from PNAS if you are asked to review it? It’s a great way to make friends! So is this really peer review? When your peer is aware that you, as a National Academy of Science (NAS) member, will be quite cross with her/him if you dare to make serious critiques (not to mention reject the manuscript)?
Okay–I know that it’s certainly not trivial to become a NAS member. Most of these researchers have certainly been chosen due to their long careers of excellent science. Many of them choose NOT to publish in PNAS because they know it is not viewed highly in some circles. But in can be used as a “dumping ground” for papers that have been unable to get into real peer reviewed journals.
Consider this, though. There is another track–a relatively new track–that PNAS allows, that in my view is even worse than the NAS contributor mode: It’s called “Direct Submission.” What does this mean? It means that the authors have secured in advance a”pre-arranged editor”? Oh–that smacks of a Soviet era style “ole boys network.” Find an editor in advance–a friend, colleague, mentor, brother, sister–someone who will agree in advance to get the paper published. Have a look at this, again from the PNAS submission site:
Prior to submission to PNAS, an author may ask an NAS member to oversee the review process of a Direct Submission. Prearranged editors should only be used when an article falls into an area without broad representation in the Academy, or for research that may be considered counter to a prevailing view or too far ahead of its time to receive a fair hearing, and in which the member is expert. If the NAS member agrees, the author should coordinate submission to ensure that the member is available, and should alert the member that he or she will be contacted by the PNAS Office within 48 hours of submission to confirm his or her willingness to serve as a prearranged editor and to comment on the importance of the work.
Now this actually manages to get around not one, but two levels of review. After all, for the ordinary-person’s peer review track, the editorial board/editor generally rejects 75% of the incoming papers without their even reaching peer review. The “pre-arranged editor” trick circumnavigates the need to go through this initial triage selection process, and shunts the paper directly into press.
Pretty amazing, eh? All you have to say is that there isn’t enough general expertise on the board, or that the paper is–how do they put it? Here it is: Counter to a prevailing view or too far ahead of its time to receive a fair hearing. So if your paper is contrary to current views or “ahead of its time” (what the hell is that supposed to mean–and who decides this anyway?)–get a free pass. But the catch? You need to have a buddy on the editorial board. Otherwise, who will do this for you. You need to be part of the “ole boys network.”
Doesn’t everyone have a disclaimer these days? After all, you don’t want to be sued. There is a statement in the submission site that says the following:
“Papers with a prearranged editor are published with a footnote to that effect.”
Well, why not be more explicit? These papers are not peer reviewed and should be treated as such.
As for this journal: it’s time to move into the 21st century.