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GeoEd: Under review

26 Sep

In this month’s GeoEd column, Sam Illingworth tells us about how teaching undergraduate students about peer review can help eliminate bad practice.

To anybody other than a researcher, the words peer review might seem like a fancy new age management technique, but to scientists it is either the last bastion of defence against the dark arts or an unnecessary evil that purports to ruin our greatest and most significant works.

According to Wikipedia (itself a fine proponent), peer review is defined as “the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field.”

Peer review itself is not a new concept; the first documented description of a peer-review process, being found in the ‘Ethics of the Physician’ by Ishap bin Ali Al Rahwi (854–931), states that the notes of physicians were examined by their contemporaries to assess if treatment had been performed according to the expected standards (you can read more on the history of the peer-review process in this article).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

Even the great Carl Sagan found the critique of his work difficult to stomach (Photo credit: NASA JPL, via Wikimedia Commons).

“Why do we put up with it? Do we like to be criticized? No, no scientist enjoys it.” So sayeth American cosmologist and author Carl Sagan about the ‘joys’ of peer review, in his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.’ He goes on to say that “Every scientist feels a proprietary affection for his or her ideas and findings. Even so… the hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away.”

Just reading these words brings me out in the kind of cold sweat that I normally associate with seeing the bill from mechanic, after having your car serviced. You know that you are going to have to bite the bullet, but in your heart of hearts you just wish that it weren’t so.

Love it or loathe it the peer-review system is an integral part of being a researcher, and given its prevalence it is strange that for many scientists the whole notion of it is a completely alien concept until they first encounter the publication process during their postgraduate studies.

During the first year of my PhD I remember being aghast at the notion that two, or possibly three, strangers would be wholly responsible for deciding whether or not my research was deemed ‘suitable’ for publication, and despite my otherwise excellent undergraduate education I had nothing to prepare me for the whole ordeal. Thankfully I had a very experienced supervisor who was able to guide me through the whole process and teach me a few tricks of the trade (always respond politely, compliment the reviewer for their suggestions, avoid the urge to break down into tears and instead break the comments down into manageable chunks), but even now I still feel a sense of dread when an email notification appears in my inbox telling me that “the reviewer’s comments have been posted.”

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

Is this how reviewers are perceived? (Photo credit: deviantArt)

By nature I am quite a defensive person, and have been known to take criticism (fair or otherwise) rather to heart, but my experiences of the peer review system have certainly helped me take a more level–headed and professional approach to the critique of my work. Crucially it has also helped me to become a better reviewer myself.

Constructive criticism is essential in order to help one develop as a researcher, and indeed as an individual, but some of the peer reviews that I have seen (and sadly been subjected to) are nothing more than mean-spirited attempts by the reviewer to assert their own supposed authority on a subject. This kind of analysis is beneficial to absolutely no one, and it should be the responsibility of the editors and administrative staff of the journals and e-zines to help eradicate it. There is always something positive to be said about any piece of research (unless it is utterly nonsensical, in which case again the editor should have stopped it from ever being submitted to a reviewer), and being totally negative in your comments will only serve as fuel for a vicious cycle in which young researchers believe that the purpose of peer review is to find fault in the work of others. Instead, good peer review should be a helpful critique of a fellow colleagues work, which politely points out any shortcomings, makes suggestions for improvements, and praises what is good.

I will now be teaching my own university students about the peer-review system, and will be asking them to mark one another’s work throughout the unit that I teach on Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University. I think that most undergraduate courses would benefit from a similar approach, not only to prepare future scientists, but also to help students learn how to respond to criticism and how to critique the work of others in a productive and conducive manner. By educating and encouraging young scientists in this way we can hope to potentially avoid these kinds of reactions in the future.

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

Teaching about peer review at university can help to eliminate bad practice (Photo credit: Gideon Burton).

For those of you who are currently reviewing a paper, I set you the challenge of explicitly writing at least one compliment to the author. This could be in regards to the excellence or originality of their research, the structure or fluidity of the article, or indeed the clarity with which they express their ideas. To those of you who are not reviewing a paper, try and find at least one positive thing to say (the colour really brings out your eyes, it’s certainly an affordable mode of transport, these scones are delicious!) the next time that your opinion is required; I guarantee that it will leave everyone feeling just a little bit more capable of themselves and what they can achieve.

 By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

Read all about it! The latest on EGU journals

17 Jan

The last month has been a big one for the EGU’s publications, with a new journal in the pipeline, another adopting interactive peer review and a new addition to Web of Science. Here’s the latest…

Soil

Say hello to SOIL

We will be launching a new interactive, open access journal at the EGU 2014 General Assembly. SOIL is dedicated to the publication and discussion of high-quality research in the field of soil system sciences. It will open for submissions in May 2014, following the journal’s official launch at EGU 2014.

Find out more about SOIL on the EGU website and take sneak peek at SOIL over at www.soil-journal.net.

 

NPG_cover

 

Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics becomes interactive
Nonlinear Processes in Geophysics (NPG), is transitioning from an open access journal with a traditional review process into an interactive open access journal that uses public peer-review and interactive public discussion. Find out more about this new peer review process here.

 

 

ESD cover

Earth System Dynamics indexed in ISI Web of Science

Last but not least, one of our open access journals, Earth System Dynamics (ESD), is to be included in the Web of Science/ISI listings, following the com­pletion of their assessment of the quality, characteristics, and flow of papers published in the journal since its launch in 2010! This is terrific news and highlights the tremendous work of the editorial board and the scientific community in submitting so many excellent articles to ESD. Over the next few months all ESD papers will be added to the listings.

Stay up-to-date with EGU news at www.egu.eu/news/announcements.

Introducing ESurf

3 Apr

ESurf, more formally known as Earth Surface Dynamics is the new open access journal from the EGU. Focussing on the processes that affect the Earth’s surface at all scales, ESurf aims to communicate the interactions of Earth surface processes with the lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and pedosphere. Highlighting field measurements, remote sensing and experimental and numerical modeling of Earth surface processes.

The first issue of Earth Surface Dynamics!

As with most other EGU journals, Earth Surface Dynamics has an open review process, where the submitted papers are also available in an open access discussion forum (Earth Surface Dynamics Discussions). What’s more, because ESurf is the ‘new kid on the block’, all submission charges are currently waived, so it’s free to submit, free to access and free to use. Brilliant!

Take a look at the first issue here and to keep updated on the latest research in Earth Surface Dynamics, follow the journal on Twitter (@EGU_ESurf).

More information about the launch of this great open access journal is also available on the EGU website.

Events for Young Scientists at EGU 2013

20 Mar

Short Courses

Open Access (OA)

Demystifying Open Access – an open discussion for early career researchers tackling how OA can benefit young scientists without compromising their careers. From what it costs to publish an open access paper to how we can measure its impact, all interested scientists are invited to drop in and join us over drinks in a marketplace of discussion.

How to apply for a job. It’s a topic rarely addressed in postgraduate courses, but in this session, career training experts will help you make the most of your strengths and show them off to a potential employer. Pick up some tips about finding the right job for you, preparing a good CV, and writing a targeted cover letter.

The Blogs and social media in scientific research session explores the ways in which scientists can use blogs and social media to communicate their work. Why should scientists blog or use Twitter?  How do they find the time? And what are the benefits? A panel of blog and social media-savvy scientists will talk about their experience before opening the discussion to the audience.

Last year’s communicate your science workshop

If you’re a Geomorphologist, you’ll be set for the week as the Geomorphology division has loads on offer! Pickup skills on dating techniquesproject supervisionopen access publishing  and you can also meet the master for tips from seasoned academics.

If you’re a Hydrologist, there’s also the opportunity to meet experts in the field in a round-table discussion with established scientists. You can also pick up pointers on writing the perfect hydrology paper.

See the session programme for more short courses at EGU 2013.

Meeting other Geoscientists during the tweet up at last year’s General Assembly.

Networking

The opening reception on Sunday, 7 April is a great opportunity to meet people, network, get to know the Assembly venue. There is free food and drink as well as specific places for Young Scientists to meet up on the Green Level. Tall signs will tell you where to go, so stop by to meet fellow early career researchers, division presidents and the Young Scientist representatives for the EGU (Jennifer Holden and Sara Mynott).

Earlier in the day, there will also be an opportunity for women in the geosciences to attend a networking event run by the Earth Science Women’s Network, for more information and how to register, see here.

Check this post for more details on networking opportunities at the General Assembly.

Have your say!

What would you like us to do for you? Join us over lunch (food provided!) to find out what the EGU can do to for Young Scientists and let us know what you’d like more of. These will take place on Tuesday 9 April and Thursday 11 April.

Other Sessions

The Medal Lectures, which highlight the work of brilliant scientists. Head on over to the lectures on the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Young Scientists (ML4-ML7) and be inspired!

You can also join in a conference call for Young Researchers in Earth Sciences, which aims to promote interdisciplinary research efforts among early career researchers.

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