A day in a life of a scientific reviewer: Dr Capitán Fernández

September 25, 2012

When it comes to scientific publishing, peer-review is a key element to evaluate the quality of research papers submitted for scholarly publication. The peer-review process is aimed at maintaining high standards of research quality, provide credibility and evaluate creativity and innovation of research projects. The concept of reviewing the scientific work of a fellow researcher/academic by experts in the field has been core to identify both its weaknesses and strengths and most of all, valuable deductions to possibly create fertile ground for new research leads and implementations in a specific area of study and academia.

Traditionally, peer review relies upon criteria such as independence and anonymity in order to ensure an objective analysis of a set of research conclusions and data. Once the latter have been valued, the next step involves the dissemination of the same among the scientific community for study and acknowledgement. Publications that have not undergone peer review are likely to be regarded with suspicion and scepticism based on the belief that false interpretations, irrelevant findings or subjective views might have been included in the research project. Among others, the primary benefits of scientific manuscripts peer-review include:

  • diversity and heterogeneity of opinions and perspectives
  • prevention of duplicated research and plagiarism
  • viable research proposals being pushed for grants and further developement
  • provision of correct scientific information to community

However, criticism has been known to arise against all forms of peer review delivered in scholarly publishing. Critics concern issues such as slowness of the process, subjectivity, or lack of a wide range, heterogeneous analytical skills to determine the value of highly innovative ideas.

To investigate the benefits and to examine the issues implied within the scientific publishing review process we kindly asked Dr Jesús Capitán Fernández, reviewer of scientific research in Robotics, to answer a set of questions (short Q&A style) regarding peer-review and all the controversies tied to it. Dr Capitán holds a degree in Telecommunications Engineering from the University of Seville, Spain. He also graduated from his Masters degree in Automation, Robotics and Telematics and obtained his PhD in Robotics from the same University. He currently serves as a post-doctoral researcher at the Instituto Superior Tecnico of Lisbon, Portugal, working for the Systems and Robotics Department.

Introduction to Dr Capitán Fernández

InTech: Tell us something about your activity as a reviewer and your subjects of interest.

Dr Capitán Fernández: I've reviewed for some conferences and journals in the field of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. E.g., IROS, AAMAS, IEEE Transactions on Robotics, Robots and Autonomous Systems and the International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems. My main interests are probabilistic decision-making and multi-robot systems for real applications.

InTech: Why and how did you decide to become a scientific reviewer?

Dr Capitán Fernández: During my PhD I received several invitations to review papers, and I decided it was the right way to stay updated with the state of art in my field.

InTech: For how long have you been a reviewer?

Dr Capitán Fernández: About 4 years.

Examining the peer-review process

InTech: Does a reviewer get biased with its own knowledge in reviewing if, or when submitting a research paper?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I think so. Reviewing is a positive experience to learn how to write better your own papers.

InTech: Does the educational background of a reviewer influence the outcome of reviewing? For example, could it happen that two reviewers situated in different countries would review a research paper substantially differently?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I don't think the background is that relevant.

InTech: Could personal views of a reviewer affect the outcome of a submitted research paper?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I don't think so.

InTech: Often a reviewer is a researcher/scientist too, what are the possible conflicts of interest that could arise and what does one do about it?

Dr Capitán Fernández: You may work together with some of the authors or share affiliation. In this case, the right thing is to reject the review.

InTech: How much do structure and language matter when reviewing a paper?

Dr Capitán Fernández: It's an important factor because the reviewer tends to evaluate more positively when the document is well written.

InTech: What do you think is an appropriate timeframe for reviewing a research paper?

Dr Capitán Fernández: In general, a few weeks or a month should be fine.

InTech: Often the whole process of reviewing can take up to months which can result in slowing down the progress of an experiment in course. Do you think that by speeding up the process the quality of reviewing would suffer?

Dr Capitán Fernández: Not necessarily. It is just about assigning reviews to people with time slots to accomplish them.

InTech: Looking at the requirements sought by some of the major institutions in their selection of reviewers, previous experience in reviewing is usually looked for. How does one gain experience in the first place?

Dr Capitán Fernández: By reviewing papers for small conferences that are less restrictive.

InTech: All research papers sought for publication within a scientific journal have to be original and novel. How does one rate the novelty of an idea? Also, how can we distinguish poor quality research from original, highly-innovative one as all kinds of research is now available on the internet?

Dr Capitán Fernández: The reviewer should work in the same field and be aware of the current state of art. That makes the task of evaluating the novelty of the paper easier.

InTech: Since I mentioned internet in my previous question, how do reviewers look at the revolution that internet has brought in terms of accessing more easily scientific content?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I think it is very useful because you can access a lot of information and previous publications instantaneously in order to compare with the one you are reviewing.

InTech: Also, with the electronic age and the internet, it has been known to happen that the entire reviewing process is open to public, meaning that subscribers to a journal can read the entire history of the report including referees' comments. What's your view on that?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I didn't see that. I don't think it is necessary for the readers to access the referees' comments.

InTech: How important is the role of the editor in the review process?

Dr Capitán Fernández: It's important because he has to decide who will be the reviewers, evaluate the reviews and take a final decision. The final outcome of the review will depend a lot on the selection of the reviewers.

InTech: Can a reviewer become an editor and vice-versa?

Dr Capitán Fernández: I guess so.

InTech: How many reviewers usually review the same research paper and if there is discrepancy between the reviewers regarding the quality of an author's work, how is it solved?

Dr Capitán Fernández: Discrepancy are solved by discussion among the reviewers or eventually by the editor. Usually, between 3 or 4 reviewers for a paper is usual.

InTech: Can the author directly discuss with the reviewer his comments on the author's research paper?

Dr Capitán Fernández: It depends on the journal or conference, but this is becoming quite popular for not so big conferences.

InTech: According to Martyn Shuttleworth, author of books on how to write a research paper, because the double-blind system (the identity of the authors is concealed from the reviewers, and vice versa) is rarely used, there are often accusations that papers are judged on the reputation of the author instead of quality. How do you comment on that?

Dr Capitán Fernández: There are many conferences that assure the double-blind system. I think it is the best manner to deal with this problem.

In conclusion, if the peer-review has its flaws and it is certainly not perfected which opens the gates to scientific community's criticism towards it, reviewing leads to a neccessary, selective process of all the research manuscripts submitted for publication. The internet today has opened up new possibilities for wider dissemination, also granting every single person a perfect, easily-used, free medium to publish online any scientific material, if it is to be considered scientific in the first place, therefore overruling antics such as the concept of scientific autorship elitism or vanity publishing. On the other hand, as problematic as the peer-review process might appear to be, it represents an essential step of the scientific publishing process by translating science in progression of society as a whole by pushing towards constant innovation and knowledge upgradal.

Finally, science progresses as knowledge is shared.

Interview by:

Ana Nodilo, nodilo@intechopen.com