5 Reasons you should probably just say no to a peer review request

You probably agree that the peer review system is broken. Several ideas have been proposed to fix the system. Some journals tried double blind peer reviewing and others experimented with open peer review.

However, I think these proposals are like putting a Bandaid over a cancerous wound because they don’t really address the root cause of the problem.

Scientists often pride themselves as a highly objective contingent. Yet, research on single blind peer reviews show women and researchers from low and middle income countries are often viewed unfavorably. Thus, double blind reviews might help, a little.

But double blind peer review has its problems. Sometimes, a reviewer needs to look at the previous work by an author, especially when understanding the context of the research is important. Open peer review might help by taking transparency to the limit.

But there’s a problem with open peer review. If scientists can succumb to bias, nothing can stop them from falling into revenge and vindictiveness. The science world is very small; I’m a postdoc, giving a negative review to a senior researcher has dire consequences to my career.

The answer to peer review challenges is probably going back to basics. And different polls agree – to fix peer review, peer reviewers need formal training. It is often assumed graduate advisors teach their students how how to conduct peer review – most don’t. Hence, publishers have developed formal programs to teach peer review.

I think formal training is good and should be encouraged. Training is like removing the cancerous cells. It addresses the heart of the problem. And I recommend anyone who cares about science to take an online class on peer review. You will thank me letter.

I came across a paper in Environmental Research that had wrong chemical structure of compound, poor experimental design, and numerous logical errors. Reading the paper, it was obvious the original manuscript lacked a solid peer review.

In a more serious case, a prominent researcher submitted a manuscript in his son’s name. I noticed this because, he cited himself about 15 times out of 40. Importantly, the son had zero research experience in the subject area but the father did. Anyone who actively researched on the topic of the paper should have noticed the red flags.

I’m certain that if some of the reviewers who reviewed these two manuscripts had rejected the request and let competent researchers do the job, these manuscripts would have been rejected.

Reviewers should learn to say, NO. Period. I think this should be the easiest decision considering that as a reviewer you probably spend 5 unpaid hours preparing a review for a journal that will probably charge you $50 to read that same article.

But if you need additional reasons to text the next request to review, I have five for you. Say no:

  1. When you’re busy and are certain you won’t be able to read the manuscript at least twice.
  2. When you think the paper is boring after reading only the abstract.
  3. When you have doubtful knowledge on the subject matter.
  4. When you are friends or mortal enemies with one of the authors.
  5. When the results of the study affect your financial interests in any way.

When your PhD research funding unexpectedly dries

The news came when I was in the lab. I had started a series of experiments looking at how bacteria broke down pharmaceuticals in wastewater. I was living my dream; studying in the US, a happy and healthy family, and a loving community of people supporting me. What could go wrong?

“I’m sorry, Edmond. I won’t be able to support you during the summer.” It was my boss. I never had the opportunity to respond because he immediately left the room. He probably had more important things to do. I was terrified but I didn’t know how to react. Should I scream or should I cry? I smiled and mumbled, “Thank you.”

Summer was three months away, graduation was two months away, and the deadline for submitting dissertations was also two months away. Since I was a foreign student, no funding in summer simply meant I had to get a job fast or packing my bags and catch the earliest flight home.

But that was not all; I had to write my dissertation, send a completed draft to my dissertation committee members in less than a month, and agree with them on the appropriate date for my defense. Not only that, I had only one published paper, which my supervisor made abundantly clear that it wasn’t adequate for me to pass my defense.

I don’t blame my supervisor for his decision. After all, I was the least productive member of his group. Everyone else around me had at least four papers in four years. Who would honestly want to keep around a researcher who publishes one paper in four years?

Being in a biological sciences program coming from a chemistry background meant I had to spend two years taking biology classes. And being the only one studying chiral pollutants, meant I had to figure out everything by myself. There was no developed method for my studies, through trial and error, I developed my own methods and became good at it. But the academic world measures productivity in number of publications and not faithfulness and commitment to work.

My chances of passing my defense were slim but my chances of getting a job were slimmer. As I continued with my experiment, I imagined what people would say if I went back to Zimbabwe without a PhD or a job at a local university. People would laugh at me and even call me names. My family would be the joke of the community.

At that moment, I realized why suicide rate was high among graduate students. I know some supervisors might not be aware of this, so let me say it: Graduate students are actually people with dreams, visions, struggles, and fears. I repeat, graduate students are actually people with dreams, visions, struggles, and fears.

One day, while setting up my experiments, I received a call that my sister had attempted suicide. Another time, I had two quickly wrap up my experiments because my wife was giving birth. There were many competing thoughts in the brain I used to design experiments and write papers. I was a husband, father, and brother besides being a graduate student researcher.

A year earlier, a friend of mine told me a story of a guy from Senegal who lost his mind after his PhD supervisor told him there was no more funding for his studies. The Senegalese didn’t have time to complete his dissertation, so he failed to get his PhD. After hearing the story, I began writing my dissertation. When I finished writing the first draft, I sent it to my friends who did or where doing a PhD.

The day my supervisor came to tell me he no longer had funding for me, I had revised my dissertation at least three times. And in the next few days, I revised it again and again. At the end of that week, I sent him my complete dissertation. A few weeks later, I had my second paper accepted in Environmental Pollution. Two months later, I had my defense and passed.

But I failed to secure a job in time. So, my family and I went back to Zimbabwe. At least I got my PhD. And my family didn’t break apart from the stress and financial torture we endured for five years. You can find my story in Science.

Image by Kap Jasa

Scientific Ostracism: On being black at an academic conference

You probably heard a dozen reasons you should attend an academic conference: practice public speaking, learn the latest practices, trends and challenges, showcase and receive feedback on your work, and network for future collaborations. After attending academic conferences for 10 years, I’m convinced they are overrated. The truth is academic conferences are not meant for everyone.

Maybe I have a buyer’ remorse and I’m disappointed with my poor returns after attending numerous conferences in three continents. This year, I intended to attend another conference in a fourth continent but I decided otherwise. Because it wasn’t worth it. I submitted two abstracts, one for a poster and the other for an oral presentation. They were both accepted as posters.

I’m an early career researcher, and I am aware attending international conferences is good for my resume. And at this stage of my career, I need to actively make new connections. I need to know the right people at the right places in the right positions for future research and possibly a future job. But all things considered, expecting that from an academic conference is a pipe dream. It ain’t gonna happen.

Let’s be honest, how many of you would pursue a collaborative relationship with a postdoc from Africa who is currently working in China? Here’s the thing; humans are highly selfish social animals. I am a selfish social animal who only pursue relationships that has obvious benefits to me. That’s human nature. Unless you are into anthropology, there’s nothing you could benefit scientifically from an African who lives in China. Period.

I agree with Rebecca Bodenheimer when she wrote at Inside Higher Ed:

When you meet someone at a conference, invariably the first thing that person does is look at your name badge to assess the institution with which you are affiliated. For many academics, that tells them how much time they should spend on learning about you… But if you’re at a no-name or regional institution or, even worse, an independent scholar, you can’t do anything for them, so you’re disposable. And often they’ll jump at the first chance to start talking to someone else.

You can replace independent scholar with African and a no-name or regional institution with Chinese university. And you get a guy like me.

You see I have two things working against me before I take a flight or book a hotel for a conference. One. Researchers are always skeptical of studies from China. I have reviewed for at least 20 journals, and I have noticed Chinese scholars are often maligned and overly scrutinized. Two. I’m an African. Should I say more about the perceptions the scientific body has on African researchers? You can check what other people are saying at NPR.

I used to think I’m poor at networking during conferences because I’m not a social person. My academic advisors in the US, Zimbabwe and China often adviced me to be more sociable. I tried. At an ACS annual meeting in Boston, I gave people my business cards, visited at least 200 posters, asked questions, and even emailed at least two dozen people after the conference. No one responded.

The thing is all those wonderful benefits of attending a conference are not for people like me. The problem isn’t I’m not a social person. It probably has to do with my dark skin and thick accent, which quickly informs my suitors that I’m of no advantage to them. Maybe I’m wrong. But unless I get full-ride travel grant, I will pass from attending conferences. It’s not worth it.

Citation Censure: When your peers don’t cite your research

There’s nothing more painful than watching your child getting rejected. A few years ago, I took my son to an on-campus early childhood education center. While I was signing him in, he walked up to a classmate and asked her if he could be her friend, “I’m sorry, Tino. I already have a friend.”

My son is a relentless person, he kept his head up and rushed to the next person. And the person said the same thing, they already had a friend. As my son walked to each person in the room, I watched his countenance changing as a feeling of rejection took over. No one wanted to be his friend.

Sometimes, actually most of the times, a career in academia feels like a day in my son’s life. All the people you walk up to do not have time for little you. As rejection begins to mount, you can’t help it but notice how different you’re from the in-group. It becomes easy to blame your point of difference as the cause of your dilemma – may be it’s because I’m an African.

My postdoc is going to be up in a year and I have started looking for positions in other places. I’m looking specifically for an assistant professor position. I know that sounds crazy considering the dwindling job market, but a man gotta have some faith.

The main reason I am focusing on assistant professorships is that I have a young family. My kids need stability. My wife needs to get her career back on track. My wife sacrificed her career for me: early career researcher confession. She has sacrificed a lot for me. One-year and two-year contract jobs won’t bring stability in my family.

Citation Censure and the crazy demands of academia
A faculty job posting at Jinan University

I recently came across a job posting for an assistant professor. They wanted someone; with at least 2 publications in top tier journals, I had 6; who studied at a university ranked in the top 200 by Times Higher Education, mine was at 198; and at least one year experience teaching undergrad, I have four.

But there was one caveat. They wanted someone with one paper that had at least 50 citations. I have 8 papers with a total of 37 citations on Google Scholar. In grad school, I worked in a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-discipline that had only two labs actively working on it. And I don’t think any of my grad school papers would ever surpass 25 citations in my lifetime. I’m just being realistic.

I’m glad I came across the job posting. Without it, I wouldn’t have noticed how researchers in my sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-discipline of chiral pharmaceuticals in the environment view my work. They don’t think it’s valuable. How else would you explain that after four years of actively publishing in the discipline none of them has ever cited my work?

The only time one of them cited my work was when I reviewed their papers. There was a special issue and they submitted two papers which I reviewed. In both instances, I had to write the editor informing her of the apparent censure. I hate self-promotion but I had to do it because I just had to do it.

But don’t think after this incident things changed. A group published a review on the chiral analysis of pharmaceuticals, my papers were missing out of 120+ references. Another works on the degradation of chiral pharmaceuticals in wastewater, my paper that developed the method they used, and another that pointed out a confounding factor they ignored were missing. The list goes on.

While in grad school, I signed up for daily Google Scholar alerts on my research topic. It helped me a lot to stay abreast with developments in my area. But recently it has been a source of great stress. Instead of reading the content, I check the references. Just to see if any one out there noticed my papers.

“Daddy, no one wants to be my friend,” Tino finally said, tears gushing from his eyes. I looked away because I was about to cry too. Why don’t people want to play with my son? Is it because he’s black. I told my son that he doesn’t have to worry about people who don’t want to play with him. I reminded him of his friend who was in the next class. He could play alone and then play with her during the break time.

I guess it’s time to take my own advice…

Early career questions: Is writing a book review really worth it?

You probably agree that writing book reviews is a worst of time. Why spend a month critically reading a book, and then another week or two writing a review that will never be cited or counted as a scientific publication? You probably should have written an original research article or finished your experiments. However, book reviews deserve a better PR because they serve as an important resource for a busy faculty and a curious public.

Advising an early career researcher who had just written a book reviewer, Karen Kelsky wrote, “The important thing is that you don’t write any more.” She continued, “The problem with book reviews at your stage is opportunity cost. While you’re writing the review, you’re not writing the peer-reviewed publication that will actually count.”

I agreed with Karen Kelsky’s position. Until a family friend recommended me a book that was a deceptive pseudoscience quagmire. The writer of the book claimed he knew numerous natural treatments for cancer. And the US government did too, but didn’t want to disclose them last the big bucks in big pharma get ruined.

Sadly, my friend thought the claims were true. He wanted the miracle herb. After reading the book, I told him my thoughts – the book was rubbish. And using my little knowledge on cancer development, I pointed out the shortcomings of the book.

I’m sure he was disappointed. After all, who doesn’t want a miracle drug? Despite his disappointment, I’m glad I used my knowledge of the philosophy of science and mechanisms of toxicity to help him. Of course, my informal review of Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures will probably never appear on my resume. And I’m sure it will never count on tenure. But that book review, helped a person who was on the verge of being deceived.

Isn’t that the purpose of book reviews; fostering accessibility while promoting scientific integrity?

Writing a book review: My journey

A couple of months ago, I decided to write my first book review on climate change. As an African, climate change is a serious issue because we’re the ones who are going to be the worst affected. I contacted the book review editor at Science if they would consider my book review. They couldn’t because they had scheduled for the whole year. My inquiry on possible submission in 2018 went unanswered.

Since my book review was on climate change, I decided to submit it to Climate Change Journal. The editor told me they ‘consider book reviews by invitation only, and only those contributions which provide insight or stimulate discourse beyond a limited review are successful.’ I thought my review was up to scratch. It wasn’t, the editor rejected it because it was ‘too straight forward.’

I don’t consider the rejection a loss but I lesson. Because the next book review I wrote I made sure it provided insight and stimulated serious discourse. I submitted the review to Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management and it was accepted. There were two other books on climate change I wanted to review separately, but the editor advised me to consider a combined book review where I compare and contrast the two books. I loved it. And it was accepted too.

Working with book review editors helped me to become a better writer. But the best lesson came from the editor who rejected my book – a book review should provide insight and stimulate discussion. Doing that might take a lot of time, but I’m convinced it’s worth it. After all, even professors busy with research need book reviews for their own books and the ones they want to use in their classrooms.

Let me end this by quoting the wise words of Gary Natriello:

Reviewing books is truly a service to the community of scholars. Those who prepare careful reviews should be commended for their efforts. If all of us take the time to review books now and then, the resulting catalog of reviews will offer an efficient entre into our growing literature.

Image by Giammarco Boscaro

Early career research path: Walking in the jungle without a compass

I recently discovered that mapping a career path as a researcher is like walking through the jungle.

Some forests have beautiful roads adorned with scenic views, and even have a convenience store. But others, well, they are jungles – no roads just a plain old fashioned jungle.

A few weeks before my wedding, my brother and I walked through such a jungle. This is what happened.

My brother and I visited my aunt at her village. I was a teaching assistant and adjunct faculty at a college in Bulawayo, so I had to go back the following day. Unfortunately, my brother and I slept late and we missed the bus. And that meant we had to walk for about 30 miles to the nearest growth point.

At first, we followed the winding gravel road hoping to find a car heading to Karoi. We walked for more than ten miles and there was nothing. Exhausted, we decided to abandon the fancy road for the jungle. After all, we knew the direction we were had to take to reach the nearest growth point.

After walking for more than four hours, I was hungry and tired. Luckily, there were lots of mazhanje (brown berries) that season. So, after walking for an hour or so, we would eat mazhanje. But the problem with mazhanje is they make you thirsty.

Fortunately, we found a grocery store and asked for water. The shop attendant refused. The borehole was far and she couldn’t sacrifice her water for us. I understood. What else could I do.

We walked for another mile and found a homestead where folks were there. It was the farming season, most people had gone to their fields. My brother asked for water and they gladly gave us. But they forgot to clean the cup or cover the water container. There were floating dead cockroaches inside the cup. I drank the water.

As I look at my career prospects today, that tragic trip with my brother comes into my mind. Unfortunately, on this trip I have a wife and two kids who never never volunteered for a crazy trip.

Sometimes, I am filled with envy as I watch my peers getting better opportunities. Their graduate supervisor helped them find a postdoc or faculty position, appointed them an associate editor or board member at a high impact factor journal, and even recognized their effort in most of the research groups publications through co-authorship. They are walking through the jungle on a paved road lined up with convenient stores.

My case is different. I have to create my own opportunities. This is why I have sent probably 2,000 job application letters. This is why I wrote book chapters thinking that they were considered for tenure. I have even written book reviews. I am just trying to dig up a road through a dense forest.

Once or twice a week, I commit myself to writing a peer review report. I’m really serious about peer review. Because I heard when you’re a good peer review, the editors might consider you for associate editor or editorial board membership appointments. I don’t know but I will keep on trying everything and see what works.

I have met people who are worse than the shop attendant in this jungle. On numerous occasions, I rewrote manuscripts for peers. They would go on to submit the manuscripts, and they got published. But my name would not be on the authors list, or even the acknowledgement – an unwitting ghost author. It’s a jungle out there.

I have realized that no one is going to come to me and tell me what I should do if I want a career in academia. I know there are numerous books and blogs about securing tenure after PhD. But none of them are for an African researcher working in a foreign land. It’s a jungle out there.

Image by Kiwihug