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Wednesday
Oct062010

When errors detract from the message, who is to blame?

ResearchBlogging.org

I am trying to read a paper right now but there are so many mistakes in it that I am really having trouble getting at the science because I am going mad over the errors.  Harikrishnan et al (2010) have written what is otherwise an important review piece about scuticociliatosis, which is a grab-bag name for the disease caused by several types of ciliated protists (single-celled organisms).  Two drugs are misspelled in the abstract (gentamycin as gentamycine and amoxicilin as amoxycililin) and the grammar, sentence structure and punctuation is abysmal throughout.  Try this on for size: “The term scuticociliatosis covers diseases affecting a number of fishes, crustaceans, and molluscs species that caused by histophagous ciliates of the order Scuticociliatida which constitutes an abundant group inhabit eutrophic coastal and saprophytic maricultural waters.”  In fact, the first sentence I found that did NOT contain an obvious grammatical or punctuation error was the 5th sentence of the second paragraph of the introduction, well into the the second page of the paper.  Its got 8 tables where it should have 3 and so it goes on, confusion after error, for 16 pages (I’ll spare you the gory details).

How does this happen?  I daresay in this case English is not the first language of the author who penned the majority of the text (two authors are from India and one from Korea).  That’s fine. I get that, but the editorial process exists to improve the manuscript before errors resulting from English as a second language find their way into print.  The editorial process involves peer review as a check and balance for the quality of the science and editorial review to ensure that the message is not miscommunicated.  In this case the latter part (at least) failed miserably.

Looking more closely at the manuscript, I think there’s another hint in the Article Info section as to how this happened.  The manuscript was received by the editors on Dec 11, 2009, received in modified form on February 26, 2010, accepted the same day and subsequently made available online on March 6, 2010.  That’s 3 months turnaround, or more accurately 60 business days from submission to print.  This is surely a record during a time of year when most editors and reviewers are on vacation for a significant chunk of time due to the end of year holidays.  Hmmm…

Why am I so annoyed about this?  I guess because, as a reader, I am unable to get at what I want (the science) because I am either distracted by or confused by problems in the presentation of the manuscript, an admittedly selfish argument.  Its also galling (and this is the petulant side of me) because I’ve had manuscripts put through the scientific and editorial ringer to the n-th degree for 18 months or more over the slightest detail, while these (no doubt well-meaning) folks are able to get a poor manuscript published within the lifespan of your average Christmas tree.  I know, I know, Waah Waah waah, poor mistreated me.  Truth is, it’s better for science that we all suffer some intermediate degree of scrutiny, rather than deploying intense effort on a few while others get a seeming free pass.  I guess its the inescapable bell-curve effect: if you assume that editorial effort is distributed on a bell curve, then some folks will cop it all, while others get away with close to none.  The biggest reason, though, that this sort of thing can’t be allowed to happen is for what it means about the science.  If we are so cavalier with the language of a manuscript, what sort of scientific review is it getting?  How can we be confident about the conclusions drawn if the way it’s written suggests that it only received a lip-service of a review?

I can’t see how this is anything other than a failure of the entire editorial system.  Someone among the sequence - the receiving section editor, the reviewers, or the managing editor when it came time for the final up-down vote - should have said “Wait a minute, is someone going to say something about this?”.  Evidently that didn’t happen and its a shame, becuase it implies a certain apathy towards the work and, as a result, the journal is worse off for it, the authors aren’t helped by it, and science as a whole suffers.

Harikrishnan, R., Balasundaram, C., & Heo, M. (2010). Scuticociliatosis and its recent prophylactic measures in aquaculture with special reference to South KoreaTaxonomy, diversity and diagnosis of scuticociliatosis: Part I Control strategies of scuticociliatosis: Part II Fish & Shellfish Immunology, 29 (1), 15-31 DOI: 10.1016/j.fsi.2010.02.026

Reader Comments (6)

Harikrishnan et al (2010) have written an important review piece about scuticociliatosis, a grab-bag name for the disease caused by several types of ciliated protists (single-celled organisms), but there are so many mistakes in it that I am having trouble getting at the science. Two drugs are misspelled in the abstract, gentamycin as gentamycine and amoxicilin as amoxycililin. The grammar, sentence structure and punctuation are abysmal. Try this on for size: “The term scuticociliatosis covers diseases affecting a number of fishes, crustaceans, and molluscs species that caused by histophagous ciliates of the order Scuticociliatida which constitutes an abundant group inhabit eutrophic coastal and saprophytic maricultural waters.” The first sentence I found that did NOT contain an obvious grammatical or punctuation error was the 5th sentence of the second paragraph of the introduction, well into the the second page of the paper. It has confusion after error for 16 pages. I’ll spare you the gory details.
October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlan
The last paragraph in your post here contains some punctuation mistakes, and the run on sentence at the end contains a spelling error.
It can happen to the best of us.
October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
The shoddy reviewing will undoubtedly result in fewer citations, and a lower impact factor for the journal. I completely agree with your sentiments about how this could have gotten through to publication stage. I recently reviewed a paper for a mid-level journal and I was kind of 'insulted' that it had even been approved to go out for review! On one hand peer review has gotten ridiculous with all of the crazy revisions we make each other do - then on the other hand there isn't enough rigor. What a mess!
October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCarin Bondar
Hi Paul, I never claimed that authors need to be error free; if they were, editors would be out of a job! What I am saying is that in this case the editors really dropped the ball.

As far as my own imperfections go - I have plenty. Unfortunately, I don't have the benefit of an editorial team reviewing my blog posts (except you guys, of course). Elsevier, on the other hand, certainly does. Indeed, that is a large part of their business and I don't think it is unreasonable to expect them to maintain a better standard than exemplified by this particular paper.
October 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterAl Dove
This post stimulated a lively exchange on my facebook page. Some of the comments included:

"I had always feel like it's my role as a reviewer to look at the science closely, and merely suggest some grammatical changes and identify glaring errors. It takes hours to think through the material, think about things that were not included and look up references and the like. To go through a paper like that and do line by line editing would be beyond the call of duty for a reviewer beyond "this paper cannot be accepted until the grammar is improved." I guess in this case no one said this though."

and

"I think we have the responsibility [to prevent these errors]. I've reviewed papers similar to Al described, where the science appears to be there but you just can't access it. Incredibly frustrating."

and

"In general terms, if the language was ambiguous ("I think this is what they mean ") then the revieweers cannot have a clear idea exactly what it is the writers do mean. I understand the feeling that as native English speakers we (in a way)... lucked out, but if the lingua franca is to be English, then we have a right, nay responsibility, to send ms back if they don't meet an acceptable level of language. And God help us when the lingua franca becomes Mandarin (and yes, I just started a sentance with "and")."
October 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterAl Dove
Alan, I think you and Paul are making the same point as me, but in a different way: that careful editing can greatly improve a piece of scientific writing! My aim in this post was not to sit in a glass house and throw stones at Harikrishnan et al., but to shine a light on what I see as some less-than-mediocre editorial work.
October 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterAl Dove

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