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International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society
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How not to conduct a peer review: Fatal, avoidable errors.

June 27, 2022
Series:Peer Reviewing
In this episode of the special series focused on the peer review process, Dr. Shweta Prasad speaks with Prof. Jose Obeso to discuss some points on how NOT to conduct a peer review.

[00:00:00]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
Hello and welcome to the MDS Podcast, the official podcast of the International Parkinson's and Movement Disorder Society. I'm Dr. Shweta Prasad from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences Bangalore, India, and I, along with my colleagues, Dr. Di Luca and Dr. Kirby, am the co-chair of the MDS peer review education and mentoring program.

Today, in continuation of our special series on the peer reviewing process, I'm honored to be joined by Professor Jose Obeso. Professor Obeso is currently the director of the Neuroscience Center at Madrid and was a past editor of the Movement Disorders journal. Hello, Professor Obeso, and welcome to the MDS podcast.

View full transcript  

[00:00:44] Prof. Jose Obeso:
Hello. Thank you. My pleasure.

[00:00:47]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
So today, we'll be talking about how not to conduct a peer review: fatal, avoidable errors. So Professor Osbeso, What are your opinions or your comments on accepting an article without any experience in the field?

[00:01:01] Prof. Jose Obeso:
Yes, yes. This is certainly one of the difficulties, perhaps not the worst, but certainly a major difficulty. I should say, first of all, is that highly successful journals, like our society journal Movement Disorders and Movement Disorders Clinical Practice, are almost always running short of reviewers. So the input to get reviews from people in the community is high, and therefore it is possible that the editor, associate editor, gets a wrong reviewer invitation. And that's possible because the demand is so high. So the fact that one gets a reviewing request doesn't mean that it is guaranteed that the person trusts that you know about that. There may be mismatch. And then if one doesn't know enough, one cannot give proper evaluation of any study.

Most movement disorder neurologists probably believe they can judge a case report about something, or an imaging of a case this kind of vignette, things like that.

And probably, this is fair, because the fact is that if you know enough, because I have seen thousands of patients who began with dystonia in the neck, then had a mutation, and I come across a case report without dystonia in the neck... I'm inventing this of course — well, that's fair enough.

But, generally, for proper research articles once you have. On juvenile trust, just in reading, because reading is not good enough for a good review. I think it's much better to say that I declined because I am not an expert enough.

And the other collateral of this is to accept and then ask somebody to help you. For instance, if I know about tremor, but I don't know much about TMS, can ask a colleague to help me with the methodology of the TMS paper applied to tremor. And then I recognize that in the review report: I mention that I asked the collaboration of whoever for the TMS part.

This is fine. So one can accept a part, or just tell the editor, "I'm commenting on the tremor segment of the paper. I'm not making any comments on TMS, because I don't know enough. That's fair.

 To give an opinion about something, one can not judge more than normal, because we all can judge. Of course, that's what we all do all the time. We just say the football team is playing well, or the politician is bad, et cetera, as we are very judgmental. But to judge on a paper, on a colleague either very positive or very negative, the two are— are not good for science, not good for academics, not good for us.

[00:04:00]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
So what do you think about personal bias in comments? How problematic does it make things for the editor?

[00:04:09] Prof. Jose Obeso:
This is terrible. This is certainly, other than faking and you making wrong statements, this is terrible, because firstly it biases the process. It's bad for the person does that, because then editors will think badly about the person.

And I have been in that position several times. You have one review, which is very negative. And one review, which is normal, positive, let's say. And then you find out that the person actually has some personal interest in this.

Then you ask a third reviewer, and the third reviewer says, no, this is fine. Then, when one goes back, cautiously, and realizes there is hidden intention in the review process, which could have killed the paper.

There are people who do more subtle things, and it's just to put a lot of limitations and ask for several new questions and pose new challenges to the paper, which delay the article. In the meantime (other) authors get their paper out. And that to me is the worst of all, because that's really — that's cheating. That's faking. That's you know, your own interest of the information.

It's different, very different, if I'm working in the field, and I get to review a paper on the same area. Which is likely. Then I know these peopleare doing this, and we are doing something similar... Well either, we need to speed up guys because somebody else is going to publish something. Or, we can improve this or we can add something to what is happening. Because after all, this is normal way science and research go.

But to deliberately be negative or just delay the paper to gain time , to your own benefit... That's really bad. It does speak very badly about the reviewer. And sooner or later, reviewers will realize that that is the case.

When that bad, I have come across in my 10 years as editors, only a couple of times. But of course we block, you know, we red cross those persons as reviewers.

[00:06:27]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
So in a situation when the editor has realized that there's something really fishy about the comments provided by a reviewer, they realize that there's something odd about them, do you have situations when you actually refrain from sending those comments out to the submitting authors? Does that happen? Is that possible?

[00:06:46] Prof. Jose Obeso:
Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. I mean, that's the prerogative of the editor. If I think the review was very biased, and was making personal comments deliberately, either to be very negative or even to attack. We are not free of people who are... who are extreme. We cut off, or just don't send at all, that review. Uh, that that can be over overtaken. Sometimes that had to be done because the author should not be exposed to personal, offensive wording, which has no value. Because even a not good paper for a given journal will benefit from a good review.

So either you don't do it and say, no, I don't want to do this paper because it's so terrible, I cannot read it. And you tell the editor. That's it. Which happens, that happens. That's it. Or you do it to help the authors to make it better for another time, one other journal or whatever.

But just to be offensive? As an author, in my younger years, I had a colleague who not only was very negative, but wrote in a almost offensive way. And so I eventually mentioned that to editors. And one editor told me once, "well, this is the problem that person has.

He/she does it to everybody. It's not with you." But I think everybody recognized that person becomes aggressive because somebody else is doing what he or she wanted to do.

[00:08:18]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
Is it okay if you accept a invitation to review, but then, look at the entire article— because very often when we look at abstracts, we can't really gauge as much as we need, especially in context of case reports or clinical vignettes where you don't have abstracts sometimes... or even bigger articles — Is it all right If you accept the review, look at the article, maybe pay closer attention to the center that it's come from, or you realize after accepting that you probably have personal bias, is it okay for them to contact the editor and say that I need to withdraw because this is a problem for me?

[00:08:51] Prof. Jose Obeso:
Well, recommend to do is to write to the editor and say, I realize now this, I'm still willing to do the review, but you need to understand that I may be biased. And that's fine. That's fine. Because the editor now can judge.

 So it's not a problem once it's known. The problem is what nobody knows. That's the real problem.

[00:09:16]  Dr. Shweta Prasad:
So with that, I think we end this episode of our special series on the peer review process. Thank you very much, Professor Obeso for so many of those personal insights, which I think would be very interesting for some of our young reviewers.

In the next episode, we'll be discussing the approach to writing and effective peer review as a non-English speaker.

Thank you so much for listening.

Special thank you to:

Prof. Jose Obeso

Dr. Shweta Prasad 

Co-chair of the MDS Peer Review Mentoring and Education Program

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