Peer Review in Science - My Experience

I recently came across a good editorial concerning peer review of scientific articles, which I have a link to on my science page.

I only ever tried to publish one article in the scientific journal system, but I had a pretty negative experience and ended up self-publishing it on my website. After filing a copyright.

At the time I was working for a young professor who had grand visions but no focus and limited hands-on abilities. Somehow it came to our attention that two published expressions for a volume were inconsistent, thus one publication had to be wrong. I seriously doubt he ever figured that out, and suspect it arose in the course of work I was doing. But it's been a long time now, and that doesn't matter.

His first reaction was that we (meaning I) could quickly crank out a correct result and get a quick and easy publication out of it. That's what was important to him - quick and easy publications to add to his list. That's how one gets ahead in academia.

Well, I worked on it over time, in between work on the main project and the courses I was required to endure. It turned out not to be all that trivial. The professor was of no help whatsoever. At least once I went to discuss the problem with him and he went off into left field on tangents about what else we could do with this, all the while contributing nothing to solving the problem at hand.

The final helpful clue came from a professor in applied math I consulted, who looked at it and said "oh, you have to use infinitesimals oriented this way". I don't know how he knew that or what his reasoning was, but that clue that took 5 minutes or less of his time helped me complete the math.

Shortly after I successfully solved the problem I ceased working for the professor, but I decided to continue publishing on my own. He had never contributed anything, and I don't buy into the paradigm that he's entitled to credit for my work just because he was paying me a pittance (for other work) at the time that I did it.

The original correct expression had been in Journal of Applied Physics, so I sent them my paper which confirmed that and extended the results to a more general case correctly. Whoever they had review it rejected it because it didn't address some very complicating factor that would probably have required numerical analysis. It seemed to me he had missed the point. He would have rejected the original correct paper on these grounds. I also submitted it to the IAHS Hydrological Journal, but they felt it was outside their areas of interest for publication.

Finally I sent it to Water Resources Research, which is where the incorrect results had been published. This was considered a currently "trendy" journal at the time and a good one to be published in, but I would have preferred Journal of Applied Physics myself. I've never been big on trendy things.

Water Resources Research sent me a letter accepting the article, with no corrections. Shortly after that I got another letter that the professor I'd worked for had contested it because he hadn't been listed as a co-author. The letter explained some long adjudication process, involving the editor. The editor at the time was a leader in my field of snow science and glaciology and I'm sure he knew of me, although I don't think that ever mattered one way or another.

I sent the editor an official letter withdrawing the paper, since that was my easiest option. I don't need a publication list, and the review process clearly doesn't separate the correct from the incorrect. To make sure the whole thing was just killed outright I indicated that Journal of Applied Physics had rejected it with an indication that additional work was required. I added that this work would require computing resources which I did not have and that this might be a good opportunity for Dr. Prof to contribute to the work if he cared to be a coauthor.

Being totally fed up with the entire process at this point, I decided to file for formal copyright protection. I then published a copy on my website, as well as some work where this was applied in some conference proceedings.

I learned a few things from this. Other than creating a list of "peer reviewed" publications for advancement in academia there is little point in the whole process. Most scientific papers are only of interest to a few people, sometimes they are only understood by a few people. I know my paper has been cited by a couple people, so the ones who need the result in their work know about it. And it's been of some use to them, which makes me happy. Furthermore, peer review has a lot to do with politics and can be a pompous and pretentious process.

This little project began because a paper was published that was incorrect. Mathematically it was just plain wrong, there isn't any judgment or opinion involved. And it had been published in a respected and trendy journal. Other reputable journals, including one with a correct result, were not interested in publishing a correction to a clearly wrong result.

I may be disgusted by the whole process but I have no reason to be bitter over it, and this is just my own story for anyone interested in it. I don't need a publication list, and I've had the satisfaction of knowing it was accepted and also that it's been used by others in their own research.

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