It’s sophomore year of our Classical and Quantum Gravity reviewer of the year awards. This year congratulations go to Dr Matthew Pitkin whose reviews were not only of exceptional quality but also submitted in good time. Matt has dedicated even more time to CQG by answering these questions. Congratulations Matt!
Tell us how you go about reviewing an article?
I’d probably echo many of last years’ winners points. Firstly, I have to decide whether I think I have the expertise to review the article. Working in the field of gravitational waves, I quite often receive requests to review papers on aspects of theoretical gravity, which I have absolutely no relevant knowledge of. (Going by my day-to-day work I’m really just a self-taught software developer and data scientist, who masquerades as an astrophysicist!) If I decide that I am qualified, then I give the article a quick skim, print it out, write “For review” in big red letters on it, and sit it somewhere prominently on my desk, so that I can’t ignore it. I also set an online calendar reminder with the deadline for returning the review.
I normally actually sit down to perform the review during a lull in my day-to-day work, like when I’ve just set an analysis code running. I just go through it methodically with a red pen in hand and scribble on the print out when I hit things I don’t understand or think might be problematic. Often, I’ll find that parts I don’t understand are actually explained later on in the paper, so this can indicate that some rearrangement of the article might be in order to clarify things. I check for any stand-out mathematical errors, but don’t have the ability to check all derivations in papers. I try not to make comments for the sake of writing something if there aren’t any problems with the paper. When I do make comments, I try to give constructive advice about how to improve the clarity of the article, or where more explanation might be required. But, I also know that it’s not my job to re-write the article, so don’t give very lengthy comments or suggestions.
What do you find most challenging about being a peer reviewer, not just for CQG, but in general?
I think one of the biggest challenges (for pretty much every review) is getting over the feeling of impostor syndrome about how on Earth I’m qualified to peer review other people’s research! The reality is that in most cases I am well qualified. I have to remind myself that, even for papers roughly aligned with my field, I can’t know everything and I just have to do my best to make sure that the science seems sound, even if I’m not able to check all the claims or mathematical derivations.
At the risk of repeating last year’s winner again, another challenge is trying to not focus too much on typos and grammatical inconsistencies, but to just look at the science. Although I do try to make sure that grammatical problems don’t obscure what the paper is about, or make it incomprehensible.
And what is the most rewarding?
In an era when there are so many new papers out there it’s very hard to find time to read even a small fraction of publications that are relevant to your work. And even when you do get to read some papers, it is hard to find the time to do more than skim the main results. One of the things that reviewing allows me to do is have a properly thorough read of a paper in my field, which can be a rare thing (or at least is for me).
My main area of research is analysing data from the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors to look for continuous quasi-monochromatic signals from pulsars. During my research this has led me to have a strong interest in Bayesian inference, and I’m always interested in finding new ways to apply this knowledge.
What motivated you to pursue this field of research?
During my undergraduate degree, I had to write a short essay on an emerging area of astrophysics, and I came across the field of gravitational wave astronomy. I was fascinated with this completely new way of observing the universe, so when applying for PhD positions (back in 2002) I knew this was a field I wanted to get involved in. This was a time when the initial LIGO detectors had just come online and we were getting high sensitivity gravitational wave data for the first time, so the promise of making the first detections was just starting to be realised. Obviously it took another 13 years before we did make the first detection of a gravitational wave signal, but it was still an exciting time to be involved in the field.
What does the future hold for scientific publishing?
I think the future is in free (to publish in and access) open access journals, with more options for entirely open and public peer review processes. I recently published a paper on a software package in the Journal of Open Source Software, which provided a very nice way to produce a peer reviewed paper on some software, with an open review process. I also think there will be more ways for people to produce content that isn’t in a standard journal article format, i.e. mixtures of code and analysis such as Jupyter notebooks, or for software libraries, in a way that it is refereed and citable.
And finally, tell us what else you do in your spare time, other than peer review!
I have two young children, so for the last four years I’ve not had much in the way of spare time! On a more serious point (and not related to just peer review), it is important that peer review is not carried out in people’s spare time (although I know the question was slightly tongue-in-cheek). Reviewing is part of the job, and so should be done as part of normal work hours (whatever that means to an academic!) A working-all-hours culture in academia is still unfortunately too common, and spare non-work time should be enjoyed and appreciated without any guilt attached that you’re not doing science.
We’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to all our reviewers who continuously help contribute to CQG’s success. Without the contribution and expertise of our community, it would be impossible to maintain the high standards of the journal, and we would like to thank you all very much for the time you dedicate.
Take a look at all of the 2017 winners here.
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