How peer review is supposed to help you!

Malicious authors know how to get past peer review without effort:

  • Pretend to have run extensive experiments supporting your theories. When the experiments contradict you or are merely difficult to explain, clean them out conveniently. Nobody will try to reproduce your experiments on the short run.
  • Do not think through the deep and complicated issues: reviewers only have a few days at the most to review your papers anyhow!
  • Pick your problems and experiments so as to make the problem as elegant as possible. Do not bother yourself with nasty (but important) details: they will merely get in the way of getting your paper accepted.


Peer review is meant to help you generate better results. Listen to the reviewers.  Peers are (potentially nasty and ill-tempered) advisors. Convince yourself that your work is good, even under some scrutiny.

Remember: your research program is more than the sum of your papers. Many useless researchers wrote many more papers (and got larger grants) than Shannon or  Feynman. Don’t write papers whose only virtue is that they may eventually get past peer review. It is a depressing goal.

6 thoughts on “How peer review is supposed to help you!”

  1. Of course, you are entirely right Daniel – at least from the point of view of ethics. But your advice goes against every edict in the academic rat race.

    (a) publish as much as you can (publishing frequency = research quality)
    (b) get grants to fund your research (requires [a])
    (c) use grant money to fund students’ work that you can use to satisfy (a) and (b).

  2. Andre: While there are certainly incentives to maximize your publication rate, there are other incentives in play as well.

    If you write fewer, better papers, you are likely to me more respected by your peers — do you think more highly of someone who writes high-quality, insightful papers at a moderate pace, or someone who churns out mediocrity? Someone who focuses on quality is also likely to be cited more (one hopes), and to win “10 year” awards and the like. A researcher’s reputation is built on doing great work, not doing lots and lots of boring work.

  3. And they call me an idealist! While I’m not an academic, my impression of life inside the ivory tower is similar that that of Julian and Andre: the pressure to be a publishing machine often outweighs other considerations, at least in the early years. It is indeed a depressing goal–and was a key factor in my decision not to pursue an academic career after completing my PhD.

  4. OK, today’s story:

    A senior, well-respected professor comes to my office and asks how I am doing.

    Me: “Kind of busy lately trying to prepare my promotion package”.

    Senior Prof: “How many journal papers do you have”?

    Me: “Six, and two of them under advanced stages of review”

    Senior Prof: “And you are already up for promotion?”

    This is a person who is going to vote in my case a few months from now.

  5. @panos I’ve got roughly the same number of journal articles and I got my promotion to full prof. There were 3 external people, at least… and nobody said anything about the *number* of papers I wrote.

    So, maybe there is hope, after all!

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