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.

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 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

5 Things I Learned After Publishing In A Predatory Journal

Like thousands of young African researchers, I am a victim of a predatory journal. I published my first research paper in a predatory journal. I was young, I was ignorant and I was looking for validation. And a predatory journal took advantage of all of this.

Predatory journals are con artists. They pry on your ignorance and take advantage of your pride. But what is a predatory journal? A predatory journal is a journal that charge researchers submission fees but offers little or no peer review or editorial support. Hence, the primary goal of a predatory journal is profit rather than advancement of sound scholarship.

How I published in a predatory journal and why I regret it

In undergrad, I studied the occurrence of acrylamide in traditional foods consumed in Zimbabwe. Since I didn’t have the right equipment, I collected my samples and sent them to Sweden for analysis. The study confirmed traditional foods had acrylamide, a cancer-causing chemical although at a lower concentration than French fries or cookies.

1. People publish in predatory journals out of ignorance

I decided to publish my study on acrylamide in food. But I didn’t know anything about publishing manuscripts. Researchers at my university in Zimbabwe often published at Academic Journals. So, I sent my manuscript to African Journal of Food Science, which is published by Academic Journals.

2. Predatory journals only want your money

A week after submission, I received an email saying my paper had been submitted. I had to pay about $350 for my paper to be published. One of my co-authors paid, “Edmond, I have published many articles but I have never paid for publication. Be careful.” I didn’t listen, I only wanted to list a publication on my resume.

3. Predatory journals lack a robust peer review system

After reading Beall’s List of Predatory Journals, I realized the African Journal of Food Science was a predatory journal. They had a shady peer review system and only cared about their profits. I think my research was good. But with a good peer review system, my paper could have been better. Editorial support could have removed the grammatical and spelling mistakes I made.

4. Predatory journals can ruin your career

Publishing in a predatory journal put a stain on my resume. I think when recruiters see that I published in a predatory journal they assume I’m a shady scientist. As a result, I often think of removing the paper on my CV when I submit job applications.

5. Predatory journals survive from the greed and pride of researchers

A recent study found in the past decade the South African government lost between $7 million and $23 million subsidizing articles published in predatory journals. Out of greed and probably ignorance, most researchers resorted to paying $350 to predatory journals. After all, the South African government would give them $7,700 in return. Researchers at my school knew Academic Journals was a predatory publisher but they wanted the pride that comes with listing a dozen papers on your CV.

Summary

Three years after publishing in a predatory journal, I published my first article in a reputable journal. I dreaded the peer review but it made my manuscript better.

To date, I have published in Journal of Chromatography AEnvironmental Pollution and Water Research. I have a manuscript under review in Environmental Pollution and another in Integrated Environment Assessment and Management.

My email is flooded daily with emails from predatory journals. They want to me to submit a manuscript or become an editor. I mark all the emails as spam. And continue with my work, reviewing manuscripts or editing my own manuscripts.

Image by Eric MacDonell from Unsplash

Good Research Ethics Will Make You A Better Scientist

Besides a handful online classes, I have never taken a formal class in research ethics. And I think that’s a serious bummer. I believe graduate schools should offer formal classes in research ethics, especially students pursuing a career in natural sciences.

In the past five months, I have been working on a review manuscript that I plan to submit this summer. Review articles are demanding but sometimes the pay-off is high. Especially when your manuscript is reviewing an emerging research area.

But you must be willing to read at least 200 articles, with a red highlight and a thick notebook. Above all, you should brace for abrasive encounters with academic dishonesty. In the past five months, I had my fair share of such encounters.

As a combed through the 274 papers for my review, I came across serious cases of academic dishonesty. It was easy for me to blame the editors and reviewers for not noticing the unethical research practices. After all, scientific journals should be beacons for promoting research ethics.

However, expecting journal editors and reviewers to fork manuscripts with questionable research ethics is farfetched. It’s like expecting palladium catalyst to convert water into bronze. It ain’t gonna happen.

I believe the best place to teach research ethics is in undergrad. And in this article, I want to show you why research ethics is important and identify some common, yet less talked about, practices that are unethical.

What is research ethics and why is it important?

I learned the importance of research ethics when I was an analytical chemist intern at a national laboratory. The lab was mandated by the state to test and approve agrochemicals used in the country. One day, my boss came to our lab fuming. There was a problem with one of the agrochemicals we had approved – it was out of spec and was destroying crops.

A witch hunt immediately began. As an ISO17025 certified lab, our paper trail was exceptional. In less than two hours, we had found the culprit. A chromatogram showed the concentration of the target compound was higher than recommended. But the analyst wrote on the approval certificate that it was within range.

That small act of dishonesty resulted in a national crisis as many tobacco seedlings were destroyed. Unethical practices in science research may cause unexpected catastrophe. The lady who fudged the results of the pesticides did so out of pressure from the bosses. But most of the time people doctor results so that their results can fit a cute theory.

I learned my first lesson on research ethics from my mother. Our family was on the bottom of the societal rank. She was a widow and we were very poor. So, we sold fruits and vegetables to supplement her monthly meagre pension.

My mother used to send me to the farmer’s market to research on the current practices of fruits and vegetables. The prices rarely changed, so sometimes I would not go to the market and tell her the previous week’s prices. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t. And the result was, mom would go to the farmer’s market with money that wasn’t enough.

So, what is research ethics? Research ethics is the appropriate application of moral principles in planning, conducting and reporting research. Above all, research ethics define scientifically acceptable norms. Hence, research ethics can be learned from your parents, friends, spiritual leader or professor.

5 common practices in science research that are unethical

As I wrote my review manuscript, I came across 4 practices that looked like prototypes of poor research ethics. The 5th practice I heard about in lobbies at national conferences – it’s the most disgusting.

1. Paraphrasing same paper, publish in different journal

A group of researchers published the same data set twice in different journals. But they were slick. This how they did it; they changed the title of their paper. And then added two new target compounds to their initial 15+.

2. Pick a sub-sample of study, make it an independent paper

Another research team played around with sampling period. They carried out a ten-year survey and published in 2015. Then using a different first author, they published another paper for a 5-year survey in a different journal. And guess what? The 5-year survey was a sub-sample of the first 10-year survey. Slick.

3. Outlier, out of paper

Sometimes researchers use statistics to justify their questionable research ethics practices. You probably have encountered several papers that state they removed certain treatments because they would skew the results. Isn’t that supposed to read: we removed results of treatment A because it didn’t fit well with our hypothesis?

4. Poor research design, poor research ethics

I once heard a talk from a researcher who set out to investigate the degradation of 10 organic pollutants in sediments but discussed on 6. When quizzed about this, she said, “I did my sampling on day 1, 3, 7, 14, 21, 42 and 63. Those four compounds disappeared in the sediment after day 3.” Instead of redesigning her experiment she redesigned her results.

5. The unethical rings of research publishing

You probably heard of citation rings – a group of research cite each other to increase their citation index. But there’s a more pervasive ring; review ring. This is the most dangerous form of academic dishonesty. A group of researchers forms an extensive ring that review each other’s manuscripts and grants.

However, considering ethics in science research are built on individual values and experiences, these researchers might not have been aware of what they did. It is the responsibility of academic institutions to instill good research ethics.

What are other unethical practices you have encountered in your research?