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Friday, September 16, 2011

How to refute a paper


Is there a meaningful way to refute an article? I tend to think that it must be one through which the author can at least learn something.
For instance,
  1. 1. The refusal must be motivated. To say "it does not suit our journal" is not enough. The author should be given enough elements to judge and improve.
  2. 2. The review process must be as transparent as possible.
  3. 3. The reviewers must not be suspected of not being able to understand or to evaluate the article (i.e., they must know its topic well enough to be able to evaluate its value).
  4. 4. If possible, rather than refute, one might suggest improvements. Of course, this implies that the dead-line must allow extra time for substantial improvements. It is just sad to know that you are given no second chance, although the problems pointed out might have been remedied.
  5. 5. Particular caution might be needed in case of papers which cannot be "recycled". In other words, before asking for a paper in Montenegrin about a finety of ancient Indian phonetism, consider whether the author is really likely to produce something you will be able to publish.

By the way, I have just had an article refuted by a journal whose editor had asked me to write something for a special issue (on a topic connected to religions). This made me rethink about the general topic of refuting articles from a different standpoint:-))

5 comments:

Dominik Wujastyk said...

I'm sorry you had such an experience, Elisa. I feel certain that what you wrote is excellent, and that the silly editor will be the loser in the long run for missing the chance to have your contribution.

And - with a smile - you would be amazed how often it is in fact possible to re-cycle things one has written. Nothing is lost, in the long run!

Dominik

elisa freschi said...

thanks Dominik, very kind of you. You are partly right (about recycling) and surely wrong (about the value of my contribution). Personally, I tend to enjoy "failing" from time to time. It calms down my hybris, gives me time to reflect and somehow saves me from bigger failures… Still I insist on motivated refusals. What do you do when you have to refute a paper?

Dominik Wujastyk said...

What do I do? Well, it's never easy. But I try to give reasons and never make an assertion about quality or value without giving an example. Like you, I think it is unacceptable for reviewers to make throwaway remarks. This is a sensitive business, and one owes it to the dignity of the contributor to be very transparent and objective.

The worst kinds of criticism or rejection are the ones that say, "this paper is full of errors, too many to list." And then silence. That's really unprofessional.

Another aspect to this that is rather unpleasant is that sometimes rejections are made for political or personal reasons, and the academic justifications are an afterthought, patched on to try to hide the real motivations. That's also rather ugly.

Dominik Wujastyk said...

I don't enjoy failing. I feel hurt, and a bit sad. But I agree, it's often a learning experience.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for your explanation. I really look forward to have a paper refused by you, now:-D

I agree with your last point (about "political or personal reasons"). Whenever this has happened to me, I felt (as you say in your last comment) hurt and did not learn anything indological out of the experience. But how to avoid such cases? I guess it is human to enjoy working with friends and it is very difficult to evaluate in an unbiased way a paper. Nor do "blind" peer review processes really work in our field (it is far too easy to understand who is the author of a paper you are evaluating). What about working on the development of a strong consensus against political reasons playing too important a role?

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