We all have been there: you read a paper and wonder: how did this ever pass peer review? Who were these incompetent peer reviewers? The following email exchange gives some insights into the farcical quagmire which the traditional peer review process is. It took place between the Editor-in-Chief of an Elsevier subscription journal Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice and a professor of physics and astronomy, who was invited to peer review a clinical trial study on gestational diabetes, his expertise assumed from some obscure “keywords”. Apparently any academic can be spontaneously invited to act as Elsevier reviewers, actual expertise doesn’t matter.
In the end, the indignant editor Antonio Ceriello, Italian research clinician with an h-index of 80, appeared to be threatening the physics professor with legal consequences from his own lawyer and Elsevier’s legal department, should he not cease complaining about these editorial practices of recruiting inappropriate reviewers.
The academic who so staunchly refused to become an expert in gestational diabetes, is Daniel Whiteson, faculty member at University of California in Irvine, USA. Whiteson is a particle physicist and studies experimental high energy physics, using data from the Large Hadron Collider. All this is rather clear on his institutional webpage. This however did not stop Elsevier from trying to check if he still may have other, hidden interests or hobbies. Whiteson was in fact invited to act as peer reviewer by these Elsevier subscription journals:
- “Mutation Research – Reviews”
- “Economic Modelling”
- “Experimental and Molecular Pathology”
- “Remote Sensing Applications”
- “Applied Ocean Research”
- “Clinical Breast Cancer”
- “Optics and Laser Technology”
- “Karbala International Journal of Modern Science”, published on behalf of University of Kerbala.
- “Annals of Agrarian Science”, published on behalf of Agricultural University of Georgia
- “Arabian Journal of Chemistry“, published on behalf of King Saud University
And of course, Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, the official journal of the International Diabetes Federation. On November 16th, Whiteson received a peer review invitation for a paper about gestational diabetes biomarkers obtained from clinician trial data. The invitation came from an official Elsevier email address (EviseSupportATelsevierDOTcom), and was signed by Ceriello:
“Dear Professor Whiteson,
I would like to invite you to review the above-referenced manuscript. To maintain our journal’s high standards we need the best reviewers, and given your expertise in this area I would greatly appreciate your contribution.
I kindly ask you to give this review invitation the same consideration that you would want one of your own manuscripts to receive”.
The email provided the links to access the editorial manager. Important was only that he doesn’t share his peer review with anyone without permission from Elsevier. If Whiteson wanted to, he could have easily reviewed that diabetes paper, maybe even order the authors to cite some of his particle physics papers. Would someone at least check his credentials should he have rejected the paper?
Whiteson, who had enough from Elsevier peer review shenanigans, wrote back, rather angrily:
“If your journal wants “high standards”, then you shouldn’t send review requests to people who are totally unqualified (me). 5 seconds on Google would tell you that.
Given the level of attention you are giving this critical element of peer review, I suspect your journal is garbage.
If you can’t do your job with appropriate diligence, don’t do it. You are harming science”.
Ceriello, using his private email address, replied:
The words you used qualify you, who probably has not experience with the process of review selection.
This was how the email exchange went afterwards:
Whiteson: “If you’re not willing to put forward the effort needed to do your job, step aside. Your sloppiness undermines the peer review process, and the credibility of science”.
Ceriello: “Why did I not find one paper with you as first author?”
Whiteson: ” You should be ashamed of yourself. I’m reporting your sloppiness to your journal’s publisher“.
Ceriello: “I am now plenty of fear”
I approached Ceriello, who was appointed as EiC of Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice on July 1st 2016, and is affiliated with two research institutions, Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS) in Barcelona, Spain and the Department of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases at IRCCS MultiMedica in Milan, Italy. The chairman of “Diabetes and Cardiovascular Diseases” study group at European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) elaborated in his email to me:
“Any journal has a long list of potential referees, linked with several key words aiming to quick identify their fields of interest. The selection of potential referees is based on the use of these keywords and, generally, several potential referees are selected and invited. The number of referees invited needs, generally, to be enough large to have the real chance to have some positive answers, because people are asked to invest time without any remuneration and to keep the responsibility of evaluating the work of somebody else. Please, note that the keywords originate from the same that the potential referees have previously used in their papers or activities.
It happens sometime that, using such key words, are invited referees who are anyhow not expert of the field of the proposed paper to evaluate”.
So, Ceriello’s strategy to find the right reviewers for his diabetes journal is”keywords”. Not their publication record in field-relevant research. Not even their general association with that field. Never mind conflicts of interest, because it doesn’t even get to the stage of establishing appropriate scientific qualifications. Does a computer algorithm alone invite reviewers? Are there trained pigeons at Elsevier offices typing random things into computer with their beaks? Which keywords turned Whiteson into a qualified peer reviewer for diabetes (or cancer, or chemistry, or ocean engineering, or agriculture?), aside of his being a US professor for something? There are no other scientists of this name immediately searchable on internet who might have been the correct addressees for that peer review, a confusion can therefore be excluded.
Ceriello concluded his email to me with:
“It was my intention, and still it is, to end this story. However, it seems that this is not the case for Prof Whiteson.
I suppose you are in contact with him. Please, advice him that if he is still interested in continuing, the next step will be for him to explain to the legal department of Elsevier why he defined, in writing, the journal “garbage”, not being qualified for this (a physic professor evaluating a scientific medical journal…) and to my personal lawyer why he was, again in writing, so offensive with me, without any evident reason”.
When I asked him if he and Elsevier threaten Whiteson with legal actions for libel, Ceriello final message was: “Threaten? No advice of where he can go“.
So I wrote to Elsevier, precisely to Andrew Miller, Senior Strategy Manager for Elsevier STM journals, who penned in 2016 the press release announcing Ceriello’s tenure as EiC of Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. I received no reply, but this is more likely due to the fact that Elsevier declared me towards its editors a “toxic individual” and announced not to communicate with me again (read here). Neither did Elsevier ever write to Whiteson, even if to apologise for what clearly looks like a legal threat issued by their academic editor Ceriello on their behalf.
One wonders: is it only Elsevier which invites peer reviewers at random like this? At Frontiers, it is not uncommon that enthusiasm for a topic is more important for a peer reviewer or even academic editor than actual scientific expertise. And an article about nanotechnology I previously published suggests that if there is any actual peer review happening at Elsevier, American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and others, it is a total mess. Maybe these awful nanotechnology papers were peer reviewed by bored Renaissance historians or eager polymath psychologists.
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