Queen's University

Editors’ prerogative or “marker-happy”?

RMC math professor Boon Ong, Sc’69, PhD’78, of Kingston, ON, argues that the term "peer reviewed" may no longer have the same lustre it once had.

Letter to the Editor

Re: “Show me the money,” Issue #3, 2010, p. 6

Carey Probst wrote that “Queen’s seems to be drinking the Kool Aid of environmental alarmists who ignore temperature data scandals and continue to believe in the fairy tail (sic) of Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Lie.’” The editor’s word sic looks bad in English, but in Latin it means “thus” or “as such.” It says the indicated word or phrase has been reproduced verbatim and may contain an error in spelling, punctuation or meaning. It is sometimes used to ridicule a perceived error, but I do not believe that was the editor’s intent. I think it was his lawyerly instinct not to alter an author’s words. One of the contentions among authors is the editor’s prerogative of revision—within reasonable limits. The contention is not about the prerogative, but what constitutes “reasonable.”

It may be said that the editor must be the sole judge of what appears in his pages. It can also be asked how much an editor can amend an article without doing the author injustice. There are few manuscripts that cannot be improved, but changes made arbitrarily by a proof-reader of sorts can ruin an author’s individual style. Also, the editor can leave himself or herself open to a charge of forgery if he publishes a manuscript that he has altered without the author’s knowledge.

Often, if only out of respect, the editor will go to some lengths to secure the author’s approval before publication. Despite this, it is not always possible to have the contribution appear exactly as it was submitted, owing to layout constraints or some established style of the publisher.

If I were “marker happy” with the word sic, I might have used it to indicate that the period inside the quoted “Inconvenient Lie.” belongs outside the quotes and that the antithesis to Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” is rather “Convenient Lie.” I might have also pointed out that “data” is plural. I would annotate Kool Aid for legal reasons, because it was grape-flavoured, cyanide-laced Flavor Aid that the Rev. Jim Jones used to kill 900 followers of his Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana.

Scientific frauds and fraudulent science may be quite common. Still, “peer review” is not what it is cracked up to be. How many reviewers have the time and due diligence to review a paper

Since the writer is of MIT pedigree, his misspelling of “tale” in “fairy tail” reminds me of a joke popular in my student days in Cambridge, MA: A student is at a supermarket express checkout with far too many items. The cashier looks at him and asks “Are you from Harvard and cannot count or are you from MIT and cannot read?”

While I share the author’s cynicism about “how to tune a model to get the desired results,” I am alarmed by his claim of the global warming alarmists’ “refusing to release the raw data on temperature change for peer review.”

Scientific frauds and fraudulent science may be quite common. Still, “peer review” is not what it is cracked up to be. How many reviewers have the time and due diligence to review a paper? Authors and reviewers often “scratch each other’s back.” In speaking of “reputable journals,” Probst reminds me of the media’s penchant to interview only the reputable -- such as a head of division, instead of the researchers who did the actual work—in order to lend credibility to a published work. With the proliferation of peer-reviewed journals, the term “peer reviewed” may have lost some of its lustre.

Boon Ong, Sc’69, PhD’78
Kingston, ON

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