The concept of peer review should be straightforward, but its practice rarely is. The idea is that one submits one’s work to the outside world discreetly, and invites honest, thoughtful and “fair” comments. From people who are at least as knowledgeable as one is (peers, not Soo-peeriors). Recently our team of 5 co-authors submitted a paper to a US professional society conference. We proposed to float ultralight reflectors at 100,000 feet in the atmosphere using aerodynamics, to reflect back sunlight. We presented initial analyses of different approaches to implement this. This seems amazingly viable compared to previous proposals to counter Global Warming, so that we felt that we had no choice but to present it, fears of widespread ridicule and vicious political attacks notwithstanding. Reflectors in Space are too difficult and costly. Consider this. Ours move at 5 m/s with aerodynamic lift, whereas orbiting objects must reach at least 7500m/s to counter gravity. So the kinetic energy needed for the Space version is at least (7500/5)^2 = 2,250,000 times as much as ours! We were very excited, but wanted to see the problems that thoughtful reviewers would find with the idea. Three months went by (2 more than the conference allowed reviewers). I complained that the absence of reviews was unfair and unprofessional – I was also an organizer for the same conference and knew the timeline and responsibilities well.
Then I got an email from the “organizer”, a fellow with a NASA email address. He said: “Doing this in Space poses many issues so I suggest not publishing the paper”.
In one sentence this fellow had exposed several things. First, in 3 months he had clearly not read the paper. Not even the title which mentioned “aerodynamic”, certainly not the abstract. I asked how someone with a NASA email address in 2017 could not know that “aerodynamic” should be a clue that the location was not in Space, and that 100,000 feet is not in Space. Silence. I asked him to read the paper and give me any definite problems that he saw. Result: He deleted the Space part from his comment to prevent others from seeing his hollowness, but the rest of his vague claim about “issues” (with no references or facts) remains!!
At the same time, I had another paper in the same track, but this had two co-authors who are both NASA researchers. The paper draft had been submitted while they were still running their code, so the Conclusions were very much left hanging and did not match the abstract. We were very worried. The same Organizer gave ratings of essentially 10/10 on every aspect to that paper!! That leaves no doubt about how much he had read that one, and how he decides his ratings.
This is a problem. It is a case of no ethics. The first rule of peer review is that ONE MUST READ THE ARTICLE before submitting a review. To do otherwise is dishonest, malicious, cowardly and lazy.
So it was with some amusement that I saw the recent review by someone whom we will only call “Moti” at Amazon, on our book “Sanatana Dharma: An Introduction to Hinduism”. From the sales record, I knew that Moti had bought and downloaded the paper (thanks!) well after 2PM on a Saturday when someone had sent a tweet talking about our book (no one buys anything at 2PM on a Saturday, it was probably 9pm.) Yet, long before 10PM the same day, Moti had posted a review!! The “Review” said something about “not needing to eat the rice to know that it is not cooked”, and then rambled on to end in a pompous misused metaphor about “letting kittens out of the bag”. I naturally provided the helpful suggestion that if he was referring to some supermarket recipe from a frozen package, well, the rice had to be cooked well before adding the boiled kittens out of a plastic bag to make Cat Biriyani.
So if dear Moti is reading this, or someone would kindly read it out slowly to him, it is quite unethical to post a review without actually reading a book or paper. When he grows up, I hope he works in a research institution where they have some decent standards.
Unfortunately, my helpful response to Moti, or perhaps my exposing his unethical action and thus offending his Honor and Dignity as they say in Pakistan, only made Moti madder. He started sending a stream of nasty emails going page by page in our book, tossing out angry insults. I read through them all – after all I really appreciate someone taking time to go page by page in the book – but saw nothing there that would suggest any change needed. Now I see that he has posted a new review, telling me that he has “reduced his rating”.
This brings up another aspect of peer review, again related to ethics. It is an utter abuse of power, not to mention silly and stupid, to “retaliate” with the claim of “OK, I’ll reduce my rating!” Our Puranas say: “Vinasa Kale Vipareeta Buddhi”. As the time of destruction approaches, the brain begins to act opposite to what reason should dictate. To his credit, Moti does not hide his identity, and that I admire (which is why I respectfully refrain from mentioning it here). The worst cowards are those who hide behind anonymity and abuse their power.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna lays out several traits that hold humans back from advancing up the Moksha trail. You can read these in any decently-translated version of the Gita, or, hey, read it in our book where we try to explain it as best we can, from an ancient (1930s) text written by someone who says that they got it from the Adi Sankara’s own version. These traits are recognized by modern psychology and all human common sense. Petulant pettiness as a response to being exposed while doing something wrong, is not mature human behavior. Of course, dictators, corrupt officials and other Rakshasas are exceptions to that. Perhaps dishonest researchers as well. As Moti grows in mental age (he must already be at least 11 in physical age to be legally on the Internet!) he will learn these simple things and hopefully grow up to be a strong and decent person.
We will continue this in the next Blog post. Attention-span these days is limited, even though you have read enough for 1000 Tweets, thanks!