2016 March Inside OR

This month, Richard Eglese celebrates the academic referee – the heroic figure who puts in a significant amount of time and effort in the name of peer review; Nigel Cummings looks at a Missouri Science and Technology (MST) project which developed a model to shed light on why most pets have lifespans considerably shorter than their owners; and, fresh from the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London, Louise Maynard-Atem reflects on the buzz-phrases ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Internet of Things’ and what these concepts might mean to us all in the future.

Inside this issue


Celebrating Referees


Are you a referee? I don’t mean a sports official who runs around a football pitch and enforces the rules of the game. I am talking about being an academic referee, who takes part in the peer review process, which is a key part of academic journal publication.

If you are a referee, why do you do it? To produce a good review takes a significant amount of time and effort, particularly for marginal papers which may contain interesting and worthwhile content, but have many details that need querying or correction. There is normally no explicit reward for producing a review, other than having your name published in an annual list by the journal to acknowledge your efforts. 

Peer Review: The Nuts and Bolts is a helpful booklet produced by Sense About Science that contains advice for Early Career Researchers. It suggests that 90% of reviewers review because they like playing their part in the academic community and 85% just enjoy seeing other papers and being able to improve them. One medical physicist speaks of being able to ‘act as a gatekeeper for quality in an area of science that I know about and care about’. Of course, peer review cannot be an absolute guarantee of accuracy. 

Occasionally, in my experience as a referee, I have spotted an error in a formula that has been used or a crucial assumption that has been overlooked, but referees do not have the time or facilities to try to reproduce experimental results. However, referees can make a significant difference in the presentation of a paper, to make it as clear as possible for other readers and to check that there are justifications for the asserted conclusions. But from an author’s point of view, peer review can be a difficult experience. None of us enjoys being criticised, even if the remarks are polite and constructive. As an author, I always dread the response message from the editor of a journal. If you think that a referee has misunderstood your writing, then you need to find a way of responding without implying that the referee does not know what he or she is talking about! If the referee is right and has raised a valid point, then that can be even worse, as it may imply further research or considerable reworking of the paper that will take much time and effort. For most academics nowadays, decisions on acceptance or rejection of their papers in highly regarded journals are very important for their careers. Having said all that, the Peer Review booklet mentioned earlier suggests that 91% of all researchers believe that their last paper was improved through the peer review process.

There will always be debates about the advantages and disadvantages of double blind review processes. If a referee does not know the names of the authors of a paper that they are reviewing, this may help them to review without personal knowledge colouring their opinion. However, it also means that reviewers cannot declare that they have no financial or other conflict of interest between their work and those of the authors, which many journals apply as part of their current reviewing systems.

I have recently taken over from Jeff Griffiths as chair of the society’s Publications Committee. I am sure that all the editors of the society’s journals will join me in recognising the valuable role that is played by referees providing timely reports on papers that are under consideration. Good refereeing is a key part of disseminating leading research in areas connected with  operational research. The success of our journals enables the society to fulfil one of its aims to advance knowledge of OR as well as to receive financial benefit, which enables the society to undertake other activities in pursuit of its charitable objectives. So even when you are busy, as most of you are, if you are a suitable referee for a paper that is sent to you for review, I hope that you will accept the responsibility and support the society’s publications activity in this way. At least you will not have a stadium full of fans and a studio of pundits using video replays to comment on your judgments!

Front cover of Inside OR magazine March 2016

2016 March Inside OR

All the Time in the World; Successful Dialogues; Celebrating Referees; Staying Alive: Energy and Longevity; Smart Cities and Datafication.

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