Congratulations to Dr Bernard Kelly, CQG Reviewer of the Year

Classical and Quantum Gravity is proud to recognise excellence in peer review and acknowledge our reviewers for their invaluable contribution to the journal.

Bernard Kelly

Bernard Kelly, University of Maryland, Baltimore County & NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Congratulations to Dr Bernard Kelly who has won our newly introduced ‘Reviewer of the Year‘ title for his excellent referee reports throughout 2016.  Below Dr Kelly gives us some insight into his process of reviewing and tells us a little bit more about himself.

Tell us how you go about reviewing an article?

First I sit on it for a week or so, thinking “Sounds appropriate. I’ll take a look when I get the chance”. And then the next thing, the journal is pinging me with a follow-up notification, which is when I realise I’ve let too much time slip by.

I read the title, abstract, gloss over the Introduction, and try to assess how mathematically involved the text is, and how much overlap there is with my own areas of expertise (or at least competence). I don’t expect to be familiar with all aspects of the research, but if it’s 50% or better (in whatever fuzzy metric I’m using), I think it’s worth giving it a serious look. Occasionally, I find that what I thought was going to be a good fit wasn’t on closer inspection, and I end up declining.

Now I print the paper out: in colour, if I’m feeling extravagant with my lab’s resources, but usually in B & W. It’s impractical to mark up PDFs on a laptop; perhaps it’d be better on a full-size tablet, but I don’t have one yet. I break out two pens — usually blue & red.

Next, I do a proper read-through, trying — and usually failing — to ignore typos and weird syntax. I’ll mark them (blue pen if they’re not serious) and move on. I try to get the sense of the argument — if there is one — and what equations and figures are most central to the paper. I also try to make sure that each symbol is defined or referenced before it’s used. I’ll try to re-derive simple expressions, if possible. Most of my time is spent trying to establish not correctness, but self-consistency. I tend to get lost in the weeds a lot, and struggle to get back to the Big Picture of the paper afterwards.

Occasionally I have to detour to read through some cited papers or other external material to understand and critically evaluate some crucial part of the new paper. This tends to seriously slow down the process (I’m not a fast reader).

Once I’ve reached the end, I have to decide a couple of things: (a) are the basic results correct? (b) are they new & interesting? I usually find the former question easier to answer. Most articles I review aren’t ground-breaking (but then, most of science isn’t either), so I’m looking for some kind of awareness of context and application in the Discussion section.

I end up writing fairly detailed reports, highlighting any problems I had understanding the purpose or procedure in some section, as well as the (usually numerous) minor errors in mathematics and problems in figures and tables. I rarely recommend rejecting papers outright, since in my experience there’s usually decent science being done. I’ll almost always require that I see the paper again after revision. My primary goal is to make sure the work is accurately and clearly presented for the broader readership.

What do you find most challenging about being a peer reviewer, not just for CQG, but in general?  

Trivially: being too details-oriented at the start. As I indicated above, typos and minor mistakes hold me up a lot when I should just let them glide by. I also have a problem dealing with papers when the authors are non-native English-speakers. Usually, this just means slightly weird syntax, or incorrect word choice (e.g., authors whose first language is French, Spanish, or Italian might use “sensible” when we use “sensitive”), but on occasion I encounter convoluted sentences that leave me genuinely confused about what the authors did. It would be very helpful if they ran their paper past a native speaker *before journal submission* to clear up the meaning as much as possible.

More seriously: establishing the overlap between my own knowledge base and that of the paper authors. As research groups become more multi-disciplinary, they draw upon a broader range of techniques, and it’s impossible for a single reviewer to possess this same breadth. At some stage, you have to trust that the science you *can’t* assess authoritatively is being applied honestly and appropriately.

And what is the most rewarding?

Helping make OK papers good, and good papers better. Taking something that’s unclear & muddled, and making it useful to other people. Physics is hard enough without having to mine poorly written articles for nuggets of wisdom.

Do you have any advice to younger researchers on how to peer review?

When you don’t understand some chain of logic in a preprint, don’t assume you’re stupid or ignorant. Even the most able researchers make silly mistakes in their papers, or leave out important steps/references. If you’re having problems with it, chances are your peers will too, and it’s totally acceptable to request that the authors clarify or justify their reasoning.

Also, reading poorly presented work can tell you what *not* to do when writing up your own research. Learn from others’ mistakes.

Peer review sketch

What research projects are you currently working on?

I’m a numerical relativist by training, often working on techniques related to simulating & analysing binary black hole mergers. Since the vacuum merger problem is essentially solved, we (and several other groups) have turned to the more complex issue of modeling mergers in astrophysically interesting material environments, in the hope of extracting useful EM signatures from these events, enabling multi-messenger observations from gravitational-wave (GW) and (e.g.) X-ray or gamma-ray detectors.

What motivated you to pursue this field of research?

It’s very much the obvious next step in pure-BH research. It’s also of great interest to NASA (where I work), since it develops & maintains EM-sensitive instruments at all frequency ranges. Many of these instruments are already collaborating with the current ground-based LIGO-Virgo GW-detection network, and we hope that in the future, a space-based GW mission (like LISA, just approved as a study by the European Space Agency, with a view to launch in 2034) will enable us to look at much larger, more extended sources, like merging supermassive black holes (SMBHs), each with its own accretion disk. It’s also a very rich field to till — there are many more unknowns to deal with when matter is included.

Where do you think the field is heading?

It’s hard to say. I suspect that in the next few years, we’ll have a solid set of predictions of realistic EM merger signatures from the mergers of galactic-center SMBHs, and will be champing at the bit to see whether any of them show up in observations. We’re going to be at the mercy of large-scale observational facilities, so I hope the multinational experimental/observational effort proceeds smoothly.

And finally, tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

My main hobbies are long-distance running, choir-singing, and promoting the use of hyphens in printed text (hyphens are scandalously underused). I can wiggle my eyebrows independently, ditto my ears (left better than right for some reason), and whistle in tune while breathing in. (Sorry, that’s about six facts.)