For two years now, I have been pondering how to teach my students about peer review. Love it or hate it, peer review is an essential part of science. Expert scrutiny makes a huge difference. The review process is why you can trust scientific papers more than, say, the latest political diatribe. It is why I trust what climate scientists say, even though I cannot judge climate science myself.
How to show students the power of this system? I tried just saying it when I first did the course in 2010. The students glazed over. Last year I showed the students a couple of reviews I had got. They seemed slightly more interested.
So this year, I am going to go the whole hog. I am going to do the review process in real time. We’ve just finished the best paper I have ever written. Conceivably, it is the best paper I will ever write (I hope not), and it concerns drug resistance, one of the most important topics of the age. It got bounced from Science two weeks ago – unreviewed. I wept. We’ve since sent it off to Nature. I am sure I will be crushed again. Since this story is likely to run all semester, I figure I can involve the students in the emotional roller coaster. With luck they will learn about the review process, and the essential negativity of science – and that scientists are humans who get really, really emotional about rejection.
I am slightly scared about this experiment. Not normal to bare my soul in front of 178 young people.
Noted added after class: This soul-bearing approach actually seemed to work as a teaching device. The students seemed engaged in the review process. The tragic thing was that the form letter rejection from Nature arrived a few hours before the class, which I duly reported to the students, ….so the saga continues. I wonder if it will be done by semester end. Hopefully, whatever happens, there will be lots of teachable moments.