Interview with PeerJ Editor David H. Reser

This week we interviewed Editor David H. Reser. He is a Lecturer in the Physiology Department at Monash University. We caught up with him via email and asked him about his background, his experience as a PeerJ editor, and his thoughts on Open Access publishing.

PJ: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what brought you into your research?

reser_profileDR: I have been working in Australia for almost 10 years, following a career in the US biopharmaceutical industry. My research questions mainly focus around the functional organization of the brain, especially in primates. The basic question underlying most of my research is how information presented to an organism via sensory systems is compared to the information that the organism already has from stored memories. I have been working a lot on an area of the brain which is very poorly understood, called the claustrum, and a lot of that research is driven by the frustration I felt (and still feel) about not knowing what the claustrum “does”. In the last few years, there has been great progress by groups around the world, and the interaction with other researchers has been a real motivating factor in my work.

PJ: What do you see as wrong with the current system of publication?

DR: So much of the current system is left over from print publications, where page space was at a premium and the cost of typesetting and formatting images, etc. limited what could go into a paper. Skilled people are still needed to edit and format manuscripts for publication, but things like word counts and fees for color images need to go away.

Another big problem is the emphasis on “impact” and perceived “importance” of journals, as opposed to the quality of the work in an individual paper or report. I have always been a little offended as a peer-reviewer at the thought that I would evaluate the quality of a manuscript differently for a “top tier” journal than I would for a specialist publication or a smaller journal. Some of the best work of my career, and some of the most exacting and tough-to-receive criticism from reviewers, has been for work that eventually wound up in less than famous journals, and it bugs me when that work is considered less “worthy” than papers which have been in big journals.

PJ: Given your experience, what would an ideal publishing venue look like?

DR: The internet, and especially free databases such as PubMed, has gone a long way toward improving scientific publication, and as a member of perhaps the last generation that used to actually go into the library stacks and photocopy papers that I needed, it’s hard not to feel like the access to information in the present day is almost too easy- in that sense, we are closer to an ideal system than ever. The areas that are ripe for improvement, in my opinion, are related to the accessibility and integrity of the data underlying publications. There are still too many obstacles to obtaining the actual numbers, images, and records involved in drawing scientific conclusions, and still too few standards for formatting and completeness of the datasets that are available. Ultimately, I would like to see a system where datasets and code are assigned the same credit and held to the same standards as the actual published manuscript. In this fantasy world, the same credit and acknowledgements would accompany publication of a useful dataset as an experimental report, and the data would be in formats that would be easily read and re-combined with data from other investigators and groups. This would go a long way toward smoothing out problems in reproducibility between studies.

PJ: What are your thoughts about the value of Open Access publishing?

DR: I think OA is definitely the future, and I am really pleased that so many government funding bodies have put rules in place to ensure that the science they fund will not be permanently hidden behind paywalls. It really helps balance out the ability of scientists to work and collaborate internationally, as talented investigators and students are not as limited in their ability to access articles by variations in institutional library budgets.

PJ: What excited you about PeerJ that persuaded you to become an AE?

DR: I liked the emphasis on quality over perceived “importance”, and the openness to work that might not otherwise be published, such as negative findings and replication studies. It is also fun being part of something new.

PJ: How do you go about evaluating a paper at PeerJ

DR: As a reviewer, I would look at the same factors I would for any other journal- is the work solid, are the conclusions justified, do the figures make sense, etc. I would also be looking carefully at the methods, especially at the data analysis section. Was there a plan in place from the outset, or were the analyses decided after the data were in hand? That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but it might raise concern. When it comes to statistics, I am looking for the rationale behind the methods used and whether the sample size and randomization procedures, if any, are appropriate for the study.

As an editor, I am looking carefully at the reviewers’ comments, as well as the study. I don’t see myself as a “Reviewer 3” unless there is a clear discrepancy between reviewers and the topic is one that I am well qualified to review. Rather, I am looking at how and why the reviewers raised questions and concerns, and I am particularly focused on how the authors reply to those concerns. Peer review is difficult and time-consuming, and I have an expectation that authors will give genuine consideration to a reviewer’s comments, and will view them as an opportunity to improve a manuscript, rather than as an attack or obstacle to progress. Of course, if a reviewer is being deliberately provocative or obtuse, I would treat that differently, but I have yet to encounter such a situation at PeerJ.

PJ: How many hours a week would you say that you devote to PeerJ, and how does it fit into your schedule?

DR: Most weeks, it is an hour or two to look at what manuscripts have become available for review, as well as to look over the journal itself. When reviewers’ comments come back, or if there are significant delays in a review, it might take more time. The hardest part is finding enough qualified reviewers who are willing to put in the time, while avoiding over-reliance on a small group of reviewers that I know will deliver, since I don’t want to strain anyone’s trust or patience.

PJ: You have published once with us already, why was it important to you to publish it at PeerJ, and how was your experience?

DR: It was the perfect venue for the work we submitted, and as it was very soon after the launch, I was able to test drive the various systems and really familiarize myself with how PeerJ works.

PJ: Which aspects of the PeerJ functionality do you find the most useful or interesting?

DR: I am a huge fan of post-publication review- I often learn as much from the comments of really interested and knowledgeable readers as I do from the original paper, especially if it is regarding a topic that is outside my immediate area of expertise. I also really like it when reviewers consent to have their names posted, and when authors agree to have the peer review history posted alongside the paper. I understand why it isn’t always feasible, both for reviewers and authors, but I find the information incredibly helpful, especially as it often draws my attention to concerns or new areas of inquiry that I wasn’t aware of previously. I believe it also helps students to see how the peer review process works, and to understand what is and isn’t a valid concern when evaluating a paper.

PJ: In your opinion, why should researchers submit to PeerJ?

DR: Speed, transparency, and accessibility are the main reasons, but I especially like the membership option, which limits vulnerability to revenue taking precedence over scientific quality, which is a persistent problem in OA journals that depend solely on per-article fees.

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