Twenty years ago, David Kaplan of the Case Western Reserve University had a manuscript rejected, and with it came what he calls a “ridiculous” comment. “The comment was essentially that I should do an x-ray crystallography of the molecule before my study could be published,” he recalls, but the study was not about structure. The x-ray crystallography results, therefore, “had nothing to do with that,” he says. To him, the reviewer was making a completely unreasonable request to find an excuse to reject the paper.
The article surveys the usual problems with peer review and is worth a read. I recognize all of the problems and they are real but I am less bothered than most. We don’t really need journals for dissemination anymore so the only function they serve is peer-review. The slowness of the process is not so big a deal anymore. (Unless you are up for tenure this year of course.)
Also, it’s true that reviewers are often just looking for excuses to reject a paper. But that is mainly because they feel obliged to give some reason to justify their decision. In many cases bad papers are like pornography. You know them when you see them. Few referees are willing to write “I reject this paper because it’s not a good paper,” so they have to write something else. To the extent that this is a failure it’s because the effort in reading through the paper looking for an excuse could be more productively spent elsewhere.
Hard Hat Heave: Lance Fortnow.