When reviewing demands expertise that you do not have!

Here is Dr. Free-Ride:

At his lounge, the Lab Lemming poses an excellent hypothetical question about manuscript review:

Suppose you are reviewing a paper. Also assume, that like most papers these days, that it has multiple authors, each of whom applies his expertise to the problem at hand. And finally, assume that you are an expert in some, but not all of the fields used to solve the particular problem being reported in this paper.What do you do if one of the key points in the paper that is not your area of expertise seems fishy. For example, if the paper is on your field area, what if some of the lab results seem fishy. Or if you are an analyst, what if the experimental setup seems odd.

Assuming that you are a successful researcher, you probably have long-time collaborators who are experts in these fields. So, what is the best way of accessing their expertise, given that some sort of confidence generally surrounds papers in review.

Here are her two options:

Here are the alternative options that occur to me:

1. Hit the literature. You could ask your expert friends for recommendations of papers that describe the kind of experimental set up, or data analysis strategy, or whatever, that is bugging you in the manuscript you’re reviewing. From those recommendations, you can use the references to collect more papers. Perusing a reasonable handful of papers that deal with the issue you’re pondering may give you a better sense of whether what’s presented in the manuscript is normal or weird. If it still strikes you as weird, you can flag it as such in your review (listing the articles you’re using as your “baseline” for normal).

2. Note your concerns, and the limits of your expertise. You can communicate your concerns as part of your formal review of the manuscript, or you can do it in an email to the journal editor in advance of your formal review. Either way, it’s not inappropriate to pass on to the journal editor names and email address of the experts you would turn to for advice. The editor can then investigate whether these experts would be appropriate additional reviewers.

If and when the manuscript is published, you might shoot an email to the expert friend you were tempted to consult and have a chat about the published paper. Use it as an opportunity for your friend to educate you about the details of his or her expertise as applied to the research described in the paper. If he or she sees a glaring problem in the paper, a letter to the journal editor may be in order.

Take a look!

2 Responses to “When reviewing demands expertise that you do not have!”

  1. Sachin Shanbhag Says:

    Interesting article, I have found myself in this situation a lot of times. I normally prefer choice (b), in large part because part (a) requires a much bigger investment of time and effort on my part.

    BTW, I have been following you blog quite regularly, and find it quite interesting.

    • Guru Says:

      Dear Sachin,

      I agree; option (b) is the best; in the original post of Lab Lemming, I saw several commentors suggesting that one takes the permission of the editor to consult a specialist friend, which is also not a bad option.

      And, thanks for your nice words!

      Guru

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