Binary decisions are a real problem in a grey-scale world
I recently made the most difficult decision I’ve had to take thus far as a journal editor. That decision was ultimately to accept the paper; that probably doesn’t sound like a difficult decision until I explain that I made this decision despite a referee saying I should reject the paper with no opportunity for resubmission not once, but twice.
One of the real problems I have with traditional pre-publication peer review is the way it takes a very nuanced problem around a work which has many different parts and demands that you take a hard yes/no decision. I could point to many papers that will probably remain unpublished where the methodology or the data might have been useful but there was disagreement about the interpretation. Or where there was no argument except that perhaps this was the wrong journal (with no suggestion of what the right one might be). Recently we had a paper rejected because we didn’t try to make up some spurious story about the biological reason for an interesting physical effect. Of course, we wanted to publish in a biologically slanted journal because that’s where it might come to the attention of people with ideas about what the biological relevance was.
So the problem is two-fold. Firstly that the paper is set up in a way that requires it to go forward or to fail as a single piece, despite the fact that one part might remain useful while another part is clearly wrong. The second is that this decision is binary, there is no way to “publish with reservations about X”, in most cases indeed no way to even mark which parts of the paper were controversial within the review process.
Thus when faced with this paper where, in my opinion, the data reported were fundamentally sound and well expressed but the intepretation perhaps more speculative than the data warranted, I was torn. The guidelines of PLoS ONE are clear: conclusions must be supported by valid evidence. Yet the data, even if the conclusions are proven wrong, are valuable in their own right. The referee objected fundamentally to the strength of the conclusion as well as having some doubts about the way those conclusions were drawn.
So we went through a process of couching the conclusions in much more careful terms, a greater discussion of the caveats and alternative interpretations. Did this fundamentally change the paper? Not really. Did it take a lot of time? Yes, months in the end. But in the end it felt like a choice between making the paper fit the guidelines, or blocking the publication of useful data. I hope the disagreement over the interpretation of the results and even the validity of the approach will play out in the comments for the paper or in the wider literature.
Is there a solution? Well I would argue that if we published first and then reviewed later this would solve many problems. Continual review and markup as well as modification would match what we actually do as our ideas change and the data catches up and propels us onwards. But making it actually happen? Still very hard work and a long way off.
In any case, you can always comment on the paper if you disagree with me. I just have.