Saturday, June 21, 2008

On peer review and cell phones

My cell phone and I have a love-hate relationship. I do not care for bells and whistles like call waiting, text messaging, or camera functions; and I always have a devil of a time explaining myself to the guys at the Verizon store. I also do not care for cell phones' collective implication of round-the-clock availability of their owners. But I like being able to talk to certain people for free, as well as to call Mrs. Gerbil to check on the little gerb while I'm off on my errands.

But alas, my cell phone's battery is dying a slow, horrible death. It demands to be charged at least once a day, regardless of whether I have been using the phone; and the phone now starts beeping its "feed me!" beep 30 minutes into a conversation. Yet if I hang up but don't plug it in, it will miraculously find a partial charge after only a few minutes' rest.

(Perhaps my trusty rusty phone is jealous of the baby--I like to talk on the phone while nursing.)

I don't really want to get a new battery. I have no idea whether I can even get a replacement battery for my no-frills phone; and besides, Verizon will give me a new phone, or at least a credit toward a new phone, in September. So I'm content to put up with its constant demands for attention for a few more months. I just wish that I'd known ahead of time that the battery would begin sucking this much less than 18 months into my relationship with this phone. Isn't that what all this R&D money is for?

There has been a lot of kerfuffle in the media and the blogosphere lately about a certain Harvard researcher's failure to disclose some of the money he's received from industry sources. This researcher, whose name begins with a "B" and ends with an "iederman," has been churning out scientifically solid work on pediatric bipolar disorder for a long, long time. (His CV probably requires at least a ream by now.)

Some are taking his disclosure malfunction as an indication that his research is shoddy, and, by extension, that bipolar disorder (and, for that matter, the entirety of DSM-IV-TR) is a load of bunk. This is one big logical fallacy--the straw man, to be precise.

If you have not spent a lot of time in academia, you may not be aware of the process by which research like this gets published. After you've obtained the necessary human subjects approval from your local Institutional Review Board or its equivalent, after you've collected and analyzed and interpreted your data, and after you've written up your manuscript, you must figure out which journal might publish it. Then you send your manuscript to that journal's editor, and the editor sends it as a de-identified document to three people who know your subject matter inside and out.

If you're trying to get psychological research published, one of these people might just be yours truly.

As a peer reviewer, I read your manuscript thoroughly, check your analyses and your interpretations thereof, determine whether it's appropriate for this particular journal, and write up a few paragraphs on my findings. I make a recommendation to the editor as to whether your manuscript should be published as is, with minor revisions, considered as a "revise and resubmit," or rejected outright. The editor then sends you a letter containing all three reviews and his or her decision.

I get about a month to complete my review, and it typically takes me about 20 hours, but I don't get paid. At no point do you know who I am, do I know who you are, or do I know who my two compatriots are. If your manuscript gets published and I recognize it, I sure hope you thank your anonymous reviewers in your acknowledgments footnote.

In my time I've saved the world from a lot of crappy manuscripts.

Although research ability and ethics overlap, they are not one and the same. Yes, conflict of interest is a huge problem. But before dissing a researcher's entire body of work, as well as the work of his or her colleagues, consider the lowly peer reviewer... who along with two other unidentified colleagues decided that each of his or her publications was worthy of ink.

Confidential to Motorola: Revise and resubmit, yo.

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