What do you do when you read a really poor scientific paper?

I read a poor paper the other day. Given the fact I read too few papers, I am always a bit annoyed spending time reading a bad one. I can live with a typo or two in a paper, but when authors are demonstrating limited grasp of the literature and are overselling the importance of their findings, you get kind of annoyed. Worse still when their data is crap and the analyses clearly weak.

So what do you do? Normally nothing, I suppose. It is not the first, nor the last bad paper I have read in my subject field. The normal cause of action is to drag it to the bin, and/or warn your students about it at a journal club. Thus, generally one just hopes it sifts to the bottom of the academic publishing ocean along with other poor papers no one will ever cite.

However, in this case, I wrote a rant aimed for this blog, pointing out the various things I disliked with the paper. A quite annoyed and detailed rant. But before pushing the publish button I changed my mind, as slamming down on a paper too hard is a bit of a bullying behavior. And I rather see the science improve than shaming the scientists.

The problem here (e.g. the poor paper) could have resulted from one or several factors: a poor manuscript submitted to a mega-journal, non-expert staff assigning an editor, this editor accepting a manuscript outside his main research field, unqualified reviewers reading it, the authors not paying attention to reviewers’ concerns during revision, and the editor accepting a paper with outstanding issues.

As for quality, the editor is always the gatekeeper, regardless if the journal is highly selective or do not make decisions based on perceived impact. The science needs to be sound, end of story. If not, the study should be rejected, or shaped by rounds of revisions until it is suitable for publication. Being an editor for this journal too, I contacted the journal office and told that my fellow editor most likely is unsuitable for his position and asked they make an investigation. We’ll see what they say, in the end. Ultimately the fate of a journal is based on the quality and rigor of review, so I am sure they will react accordingly.


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