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Everything you need to know: Graduate program offers crash course in the politics of peer review

Photonics.com
Jul 2013
Jul. 16, 2013 — The University of Leicester’s Journal of Physics Special Topics is kind of a downer. In perusing a single issue I discovered the following:  

  • The helicarrier — the flying aircraft carrier that’s home to a bunch of superspies in the movie The Avengers — is actually somewhat fantastical. Modern rotors couldn’t provide the necessary propeller frequency for the three or four large blades shown in the movie to keep the thing aloft (374 RPM and 324 RPM, respectively). 
  • Based on a consideration of elements of plasma physics, it wouldn’t be possible using today’s technology to produce a lightsaber anything like those featured in the Star Wars movies. 
  • Katrina and The Waves lied to us. You can’t walk on sunshine. The radiation flux from the sun is about 3 billion times too small. 

There’s some small consolation here. Remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the flying car driven by Dick Van Dyke in the 1968 movie of the same name? As depicted in the movie the car could never get off the ground, say the authors of one of the papers. But by increasing the wing area from 10m2 to 56.99m2, “it would be able to take off within its normal performance parameters.”

Anyway, as much as the journal has deflated my hopes of building things I happen to see in movies — Chitty Chitty Bang Bang aside; that one could still work — it serves an important function at the University of Leicester: In more ways than one, it prepares students for the challenges they will face in their research careers.

Journal of Physics Special Topics was launched in 1996, when the first integrated Masters (MPhys) courses were introduced at the University of Leicester. The intent of the journal was, in part, to introduce more “transferable” skills into the courses, said course leader Dr. Mervyn Roy, a lecturer at the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and in particular to let students practice some of the skills of a working physicist — things like communicating results and working in research teams.

At the same time, it offers insight into the world of academic publishing. In addition to writing and submitting the papers that appear in the journal, students serve as editors and reviewers, thus gaining experience in all aspects of publishing a journal.

“For those who go on to do a PhD — about 30 to 40% of our MPhys students — this can be a valuable head start,” Roy said. “But I think it’s also important in general for more people to understand how science works — and to learn about the strengths (and weaknesses) of the peer review system.”

Maria-TheresiaWalach was co-author of nine papers in this year’s Journal of Physics Special Topics, on topics ranging from the physics of giant peach transport (based on the Roald Dahl book James and the Giant Peach) to the effects of the encounter between asteroid Apophis and the Earth in 2029.

“For those of us wanting to continue in academia,” she said, “it was great to get a flavor of what peer reviewed journals are like and to get to grips with how they work before we have to face them. So, hopefully we are now somewhat prepared for our future as physicists.”

What did they learn? For starters, she said, they discovered just how long and involved the process of writing and submitting a paper can be — and just how much pressure there is to get the paper published, as their grades depended on it.

Time management emerged as a major theme while putting together the journal. Not only did the students have to find time to write the papers — even as they kept on top of all their other obligations — they were also tasked with reviewing papers written by their peers. Coming up with the time to do so proved a bit of a challenge.

“It was difficult to find the proper trade-off between reviewing a paper well and leaving enough time for other work,” said David Starkey, co-author of eight of the papers, including “A Good Hose Down,” which investigates the maximum pressure from a fire hydrant a human can withstand before losing control.

Perhaps most surprising, though, was the experience of peer review — the unanticipated difficulties in both offering and receiving criticism.

“As we were all editors as well as authors and reviewers we had to deal with all aspects of the process,” Walach said, “and the criticism soon became the focus point of it all. It turns out that students can be a lot more critical than the academics that mark our work usually! I think the most important thing we all learnt was to face criticism like never before.”

Ultimately, they learned that you need to be able to back up your critiques when reviewing a paper, because the paper’s authors will rarely be happy with a rejection.

“The editorial meetings were sometime quite heated when a representative from a reviewing group was explaining reasons for a ‘reject’ recommendation to a representative from the authors’ group,” Starkey said. “Being able to argue a point well and give a reasoned explanation for a decision was quite a useful technique to pick up.”




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