Monday, December 9, 2013
I am late with my review of a paper for the Reputable Society Journal. I am the tie-breaker referee and have been trying to do my duty diligently, really go through the paper with a fine-tooth comb, analyze the response to each of the other two referees, and carefully weigh the pros and cons for the publication of this paper.
The problem is that the paper is really, really boring and I am not convinced that it should be published at all. I have picked it up and put it down several times. I don't think there is anything wrong with the technical part of the work, I believe that it's been competently done and that it is correct (within the constraints of the techniques they use, of course). But the overarching question is: why, oh why did they do this work? And, more importantly, why oh why did they write this paper? I mean, the work is topical, it explores a sort-of hot area, but the authors ask questions to which we actually already know the answers, and write the paper in a way that doesn't really reveal anything, new or otherwise.
I have read the paper several times, and I still have no idea what the conclusion is, what one is supposed to take away from this paper. I know as much about this topic after having read this paper as before having read it, I am just older and more weary. The paper does represent a huge amount of work, but other researchers would have probably done something more appealing with the data than the authors.
There should be a reason to write a paper, any paper. You might identify an existing open problem and try to solve it; you might identify a flaw in how things were previously done and do it better or do it differently so that new features are revealed; you might identify an unexplained phenomenon, and offer a hypothesis explaining it with as good of a proof as you can; you might attempt to prove or disprove an existing hypothesis of others... Whatever you do, your paper should tell us something about the world that we didn't know before. It's your duty, as the author, to frame this story for the reader. We need to know what you did, why you did it, how you did it, and what the point of all that is, i.e. what we are supposed to remember your paper for.
In this paper, I know what they did and how, but I don't know why and I don't know what I am supposed to remember, as whatever resembles a conclusion is pretty trivial. Sometimes, not coming across as a jerk referee is a tall order.