Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The "sundry"

The subtitle of my blog says that it is about books, technology and sundry. Well, consider this the sundry. I am trying to publish an article. I am an historian by training and inclination, and my article is historical, and it is about libraries. I have had a horrible issue with my "peers" in the peer-review process, and when I have talked about this problem with other scholars, they have all, without exception said, "yes, I had a problem like that once, too."
What is the deal, then? Why do we continue with this peer-review nonsense, if everyone agrees that it has some serious flaws? In my case, one of my readers turned out to be a person who has a very vested interest in seeing that I do not get published. I know this because the comments that this reader had about my paper were factually incorrect, bizarre, and very insulting. The editor of the journal apparently thought this was the case as well, since he personally called me to tell me that the article would now go to a third party, because one of my first readers was so off the charts with his comments.
But think, what if you were publishing some piece that was absolutely devastating to several scholars in your field, and they, being the "experts", were the one to review you? Your work is now essentially lost because everyone fears to be called out for mistakes or poor research or just oversight.
The thought that my own work could be shelved because of one person is terrifying; I can't imagine if my work was actually important.

This reminds me of Lemaitre. For those who do not know who Lemaitre was, he was a Catholic priest who was also a physicist, and who was the one to think of the Big Bang. He was a mathematician at heart, so most of his physics work was based on what the math would prove, as opposed to what he imagined. He and Einstein were pretty much on the opposite ends of the spectrum of physics research in this regard. Incidentally, Einstein believed that the universe was infinite, and static. And Lemaitre, because he kept insisting on something that Einstein said was not possible (ie, an expanding universe), was basically blackballed for a long time. Until Hubble made his discovery of the red-shift, in fact. Then all of the sudden, Lemaitre's work was validated and he was an overnight celebrity.
But he worked in isolation and without a lot of support for too long, just because someone who was supposedly the expert insisted he was wrong. To end the story on a high note, it is gratifying to know that eventually Einstein went up to Lemaitre and told him that he had been wrong, and that Lemaitre had always been right.

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"Wicked people never have time for reading. It's one of the reasons for their wickedness." —Lemony Snicket, The Penultimate Peril.