The referee reports are in and you’re faced with a familiar situation: they are positive, hooray, but there is an ambiguous suggestion which you don’t quite understand. What follows is a lot of second-guessing, a number of meetings with your co-authors, lengthy editing of the paper to implement whatever you think the referees wanted you to do, a letter to the editor in which you explain that you didn’t quite understand, but that you assumed it was X and that you tried to answer it as best as you could and so on.
As often as not, you assumed wrongly which either leads to another round in which the referees tell you that what they in fact meant was not X but, (often again in ambiguous terms) indeed Y and that you should better fix Y this time or else…
Another familiar situation is that you’re the referee. You’re reviewing this paper and you think it is great but that the explanation offered by the authors is quite unclear. You’re not quite sure whether that is due to your lack of expertise in that exact field or whether it’s just not very well written. Then you try your best to express your concerns but again, it’s not exactly your field, so how can you be expected to give accurate advice, and also, you have better things to do than these people’s homework.
I don’t know how much research time and thus funding money goes down the drain in the ensuing prolonged review process but it must be significant. So what is the solution to all this? In my opinion it’s quite simple: allow the referee or the authors to talk to each other. Just imagine how gloriously straightforward it would be in example 1 to contact a reviewer to ask him what precisely he was suggesting. In example 2, a couple of question would be enough to find out whether the paper needed improvement or your understanding of physics.
The refereeing process, of course, is single-blind. The email contact would have to be handled by the journal, which nowadays has a powerful online portal for publication management anyway. How do you avoid abuse, e.g. authors bombarding their referees with messages? You install a unilateral opt-out system, or limit the number of emails that can be exchanged per refereeing round. Even people who get arrested are allowed a phone call, right? Or people on TV game shows. Why not scientists?
I think this is a brilliant idea, but is it ever going to be implemented? The handful of readers who randomly stumble upon my idle musings on this website will probably not take to the streets and bring about the required revolution. I’m going to use a trick. Last time I posted about the upcoming APS open-access journal Physical Review X (PRX), the APS contacted me within hours to point out a factual error in my post. This wasn’t because their editors are avid readers of this blog but because they had set up a Google alert for keywords involving their new journal. In the hope that this alert is still active, I now invoke the power of Google to get my idea across:
Dear anonymous APS editor or underling who happens to check the hundreds of alerts which are created for PRX every minute,
I hereby suggest to implement a limited messaging system between referees and authors. The best place to start would be your new journal Physical Review X. I’m sure the suggested feature would create a lot of interest in the community.