Exploring new ideas, messing around with disciplinary boundaries, making unusual and innovative connections – surely that’s what cutting edge research is supposed to be about these days? Certainly it’s something many researchers aspire to – at least on those grant proposals where “interdisciplinary”, “Multidisciplinary” and even “transdisciplinary” are essential buzz-words. But let me tell you, it can make a journal editor’s life a misery.
Take this example: In my role as coordinating editor of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research I get more than my fair share of papers with titles something like this dropping into my in-box: “A novel, green approach to synthesizing really fancy nanoparticles using extract of lesser spotted purple wort”. It’s a fictitious title, but not that far removed from some of the papers I receive.
It sounds really interesting in principle – combining as it does aspects of chemistry, materials science, botany, and probably half a dozen other disciplines, to arrive at a biological route to manufacturing nanoparticles that have probably previously only been synthesized through some messy route using buckets of nasty chemicals.
But here’s the snag when you get to peer review – you need peers to review the research. And inevitably there are only a handful of people in the whole world who have done similar research – and they are usually all co-authors on the paper you are trying to get reviewed!
So as a journal editor you have a problem – who on earth do you get to review the work before publication?
I can’t be alone in struggling with this. Papers published within clear-cut disciplines usually have a sizable pool of peers to call on for the review and publication process to work. But the more that disciplines are mixed and matched in research, the smaller that pool of qualified experts becomes. Until you hit the ultimate in transdisciplinary research, and find yourself with a pool of one.
In the long run, there are going to have to be ways found around the peer review challenges that interdisciplinary research presents. For top tier papers it probably isn’t too much of an issue – here there is a pool of interdisciplinary experts willing to give up their time to review truly groundbreaking research. But for the vast majority of publications, I suspects it’s becoming an increasing problem.
There have been some ideas bandied around – the use of social media and on-line paper ranking systems for instance (PLoS One for example allows papers to be rated and commented on). And Christopher Lee at UCLA has posted a couple of pieces on-line on new models of interdisciplinary peer review.
But there’s not a lot out there as far as I can see.
In the meantime, we struggle on. In the case of the papers on novel nanoparticle synthesis routes (of which I am well on the way to becoming an expert in!), I keep asking away until I get enough reviews of sufficient quality to make a decision on submissions. But it takes a long time for peer reviews like this to be completed – especially when you wait a month, just to get back a review along the lines of “this is a very nice paper” (I kid you not – this is not an uncommon – albeit totally unacceptable – review). It also takes its toll on the editor who ends up spending hours scanning the literature for possible reviewers. The result is extremely long review times, and an increased chance of either dodgy work being published, or innovative research being rejected.
I must confess this is more of a gripe blog than a “here’s a solution” blog. But I am interested to know how many others out there are struggling with this, or have come up with tentative solutions to the “peer review on a pool of one challenge”.