Methods of research, peer review and rediscovery

Types of researchers

There are, broadly, two kinds of researchers that I know of; some directly plunge in to action, while others do a lot of library work before getting their hands dirty. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes, too much of library work interferes with creative thinking (and, even to some extent, a bit of lethargy in thinking), while, direct attack leaves holes in ones understanding of the big picture and, to lots of reinventing of the wheels — which, by itself is not too bad since you can learn a lot by reinventing–however, they can at times be unproductive. The direct attack approach can also lead to some really embarrassing situations, especially, if you are new to a field, as the following story shows.

Accidental rediscovery?

In the latest issue of Nature, Katherine Sanderson reports on an accidental rediscovery of a 103 years old chemical reaction (The news report uses a bit of a strange language:

… they accidentally replicated an experiment that was done more than a century ago. The resulting ruckus has highlighted how accidental chemical conclusions can get past peer review, and stands as a reminder of how easy it is to miss similarities to old results.

What is an accidental chemical conclusion? Why not say rediscovery or reinvention?).

One of the references in the report (Ref. 5 — The correspondence of Prof. Dr. Manfred Christl published in Angew. Chem. Int. Ed) is more useful and includes the information that (a) the reported reactions are handbook material (if not textbook material), and (b) the authors of the papers were initially reluctant to concede the truth behind his criticisms.

Peer review to blame? (And, would open review help?)

Prof. Christl goes on to criticise the peer review process too:

A further question refers to the reviewing of the above papers. Presumably, at least four referees were entrusted with this duty, two of Angewandte Chemie and two of Organic Letters. They have provided conclusive evidence for their lack of knowledge of heterocyclic chemistry. However, the referees are probably chosen by the editorial offices according to the specialization of the corresponding authors and, thus, have the same gaps in the knowledge as the authors. In consequence, if the authors present results remote of their main projects, extreme misjudgments are inevitable, such as those in the papers of YGS and SLMM.

Chemistry as a science does not suffer damage by errors, since if they concern an important field of research these are recognized as such sooner or later, and if they occur in research niches they are without significance. For the reader of scientific work, however, it will become increasingly more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, if authors and referees do not do the preliminary sorting adequately.

Here, the key fault with the peer review process seems to be the following:

… the referees are probably chosen by the editorial offices according to the specialization of the corresponding authors and, thus, have the same gaps in the knowledge as the authors.

Some of the journals that I know of even ask for a list of preferred referees; and, as this case shows, such processes can lead to lots of tricky situations.

Can open review process be a solution to problems of this kind? They can be, as long as enough people take an interest in going through papers in their area of specialisation and comment on manuscripts.

What is rediscovery?

I personally know of lots of rediscoveries in my area of research. In all those cases, nobody blames the peer review process or the availability of electronic access which makes the digital era researchers to be sloppy with their literature survey (As a matter of fact, most of these rediscoveries did happen in the pre-digital era); instead, after giving credit to all the authors, usually, one just adds a footnote giving the details of chronology of discovery. So, this entire episode raise an interesting question for me: what is a rediscovery? When can we say that some researcher are group of researchers have rediscovered something? Why, in this case, for example, can the authors be not given credit for rediscovering the reaction?

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