The “scientific method” is a phrase that most non-scientists have heard before, but they may not necessarily comprehend what it means or how the process works. During the scientific method, observations are made, ideas are created, questions are developed, and hypotheses are generated to test the validity of those questions and ideas. To test those hypotheses, we gather data, evaluate trends in the data (usually with statistical analysis), determine what those trends mean, and then determine whether our original hypothesis was supported or if a new hypothesis can be developed. We come to conclusions about what those trends in the data are telling us and how we can use this information to apprise other scientists or the general public.
In biology, often these conclusions can inform conservation or management decisions, but it may simply further biological knowledge.
However, conclusive statements do not complete the scientific method because the process undertaken by the authors needs to be evaluated by other members of the scientific community to examine the validity of that process and conclusions. This evaluation of written work is what is undertaken during the process of peer-review of scientific literature.
Recently, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology re-adopted peer review of scientific manuscripts that are submitted to The Passenger Pigeon.
During peer-review, a manuscript is evaluated by another scientist, likely someone with an expertise or well-rounded knowledge of the subject matter, to determine its credibility, validity and contribution to scientific knowledge.
As WSO’s Research Chair, it is my job to first briefly read through the manuscript to determine if it needs to go through the peer-review process. Manuscripts that summarize broad viewpoints on birds or ornithological methods without presenting original data are typically not sent out for review, but instead evaluated by the main editors, Chuck Heikkinen and Delia Unson, for credibility, relevance to the WSO audience and formatting to make sure they are following the guidelines given to authors.
Manuscripts that present original data collected by the author(s) are typically evaluated by me and one other outside reviewer. Sometimes, the main author(s) of the manuscript will provide the names of reviewers that would be good choices to evaluate their work. I contact those choices to see if they have the interest/time to evaluate the manuscript and ask if there are any conflicts of interest that they may not be a good candidate to review the article. For example, a suggested reviewer may have been a member of this person’s doctoral dissertation committee or employer while this person did the work. This would present a conflict of interest because the review provided by that reviewer would be biased, which is something we ardently try to avoid during the scientific process. Once a reviewer has accepted the responsibility of reviewing the article, we set a reasonable deadline to return the reviewed manuscript to the author.
Once I have received the review, I evaluate the thoughts presented by the reviewer and check to see how well they match my thoughts on the manuscript. Summary of constructive feedback suggests areas of the manuscript that were unclear or difficult to understand and may need more information to help clarify these misunderstandings. If needed, reviewers hopefully provide alternative methods or analyses that would strengthen the ability of the author to evaluate trends in their data.
If we do not accept a manuscript for publication, there need to be valid reasons why the manuscript was not accepted, such as incorrect methods used, incorrect interpretation of their findings, or lack of relevance to our target audience.
When a manuscript is accepted for publication, this is usually not the end of the process. I expect the author to respond to the feedback provided by myself and the reviewer. This provides the author(s) the opportunity to defend their viewpoint or to demonstrate how they have changed the manuscript to help clarify areas where there was difficulty originally. After the author re-submits the manuscript, I review it again and also send the manuscript to our copy editor, Amy Staffen. Amy is also a biologist and has a very thorough eye when it comes to evaluating the work of other biologists.
If needed, I will send the manuscript back to the author to respond to comments from myself or Amy. Once Amy and I are satisfied with the final product, we submit the article to Chuck and Delia who determine which issue is best to include the accepted article.
So, you can see that the process of peerreview can be arduous, frustrating and timeconsuming. However, it is the evaluation of other’s work that further increases our scientific knowledge, determines if the process taken is the best that is available given the data, and moves science forward.
By Matt Hayes, WSO Research Committee Chair