MANILA, MAY 12, 2008
(STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Eduardo A. Padlan, Ph.D. - It is a scientist’s obligation to publish the results of his studies, if he thinks they might benefit others. For this reason, a scientist has to know how to write and publish a scientific paper.

Many years ago, a friend of mine and I wrote a theoretical paper on the application of a statistical mechanics formalism to a biological problem. I sent it off to a theoretical biology journal — it was rejected. The opinions of three referees were solicited by the editor, ostensibly because the first two referees differed in their opinions of the paper: one thought it was fine, the other didn’t think so. The third referee also rejected the paper, saying that we should do experiments to prove the validity of our formalism. It was obviously an idiotic demand, considering that the journal was a theoretical journal. I was too respectful of elders at the time and I did not contest the decision. Moreover, I did not pursue the issue and our paper was never published. I would like to believe that it was not because our work was not good enough to be published, but because I simply didn’t know how to respond to referees’ criticisms. I did not know then how to publish a scientific paper.

Very recently, our group published a paper on an analysis of antibody sequences. The person who did most of the work was Pam David and she wrote the manuscript and was the one who communicated it to an immunology journal. It was rejected. There were some minor criticisms and one truly idiotic comment. Maybe, I should not use the word “idiotic” here; a more proper word would probably be “uninformed.” You see, there is a paper in the literature that I’m familiar with, which clearly contradicted that referee’s criticism. Obviously, the referee was not aware of the paper. Pam rewrote the manuscript to take care of the minor criticisms, re-submitted it, and added in her re-submission letter a subtle “in-your-face” (Pam’s words) statement regarding the “uninformed” (I’m being polite here) criticism. Our paper was accepted without further comment. That was Pam’s first paper and already she knows how to write and publish a scientific paper.

“Peer-review” is the accepted procedure for assuring that a scientific publication is of good quality. But, who are one’s “peers”? In order to be able to pass judgment on a scientific paper competently, i.e., to referee a paper properly, one must be sufficiently familiar with the science. That usually means that the referee(s) must be working on the same subject. That means that your “peers” are also your competitors! In this day and age when funding is limited and there is often a race for fame and glory (and tenure and patents and other worldly rewards), there could be instances when your competitor(s) might be inclined to hinder the publication of your paper. (Not all scientists are ethical, you know.) To avoid such an occurrence, you could ask that the referees not be your known competitors, which means that the referees will not be completely familiar with the science. That’s why one sometimes gets idiotic/uninformed comments. It has actually been suggested that a cadre of referees be formed consisting of retired individuals who are still enough familiar with the science, but who are no longer “competing.” Of course, those individuals should also not have axes to grind. (Not all scientists are willing to forget past “injustices,” you know.)

In the Philippines today, we may not yet have the pool of scientists from which to draw the referees we need for our scientific journals. We may have to recruit referees from abroad. Of course, we could just send our manuscripts to international journals, as some believe we should. That could be painful. Not many international journals would be sympathetic to studies that are primarily relevant to the town of Puling (my favorite fictitious town) in the province of Bugat (my favorite fictitious province), or to some other remote spot in the Philippines.

I am saddened that we may have to ask others to pass judgment on the legitimacy of our science. The comparison may not be totally appropriate, but in the business world a company does not ask other companies for their opinion before developing and marketing a product. Pharmaceutical companies would probably not ask other (competing) pharmaceutical companies to validate their results. (It would be unwise of them to do it — to put it mildly.) We should train more scientists so we won’t have to rely on others to validate our science.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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