I hate it when this happens

She looks like I feel, trying to review a really bad paper. After having spent the better part of a day trying to understand a paper I w...

She looks like I feel, trying to review a really bad paper.
After having spent the better part of a day trying to understand a paper I was asked to review, I realized that I had to throw in the towel.  Here's what I sent to the journal's editor (redacted to ensure I don't end up getting sued or something):
Even though I accepted the job of reviewing this paper, I cannot carry out the review.
The reason for this is that the paper is so absolutely awful, and the english is so hopelessly poor, that I cannot understand anything the authors are writing about.  The literature review is superficial, biased, and lacking any depth whatsoever.  There are no definitions of significant terms, no research questions, and no explanation of what the relevance of [XYZ] is. The authors also appear to have no idea of what [PQR] is.
Furthermore, it is the role of the editor to filter submissions for basic requirements - such as language use - and in this regard you are completely derelict.  This paper should have never gone to review in its current state.
It's insulting that I should have to waste my time on papers like this.
I will never review for [JOURNAL] again.
And this wasn't in just any journal; it's a top-shelf journal by a top-shelf organization.

It burns my toast to have to send messages like this.  I love to review papers.  I get to see cutting-edge work being birthed, and, if I'm lucky, provide some guidance to help ensure the work is well-received by the broader community.  I actually enjoy studying new papers, trying to understand why they wrote it as they did, making sure they've got the right references, and all that.  It's like being a detective, but in a good way.  I work on the assumption that every paper is great, and I'm just looking to make sure its greatness shines through.

And when I do write negative reviews, I try to remain supportive of the authors' work.  I highlight what I saw as the positive points; I compliment them where things went right; and I (almost) always tell them that I "look forward" to reviewing revised manuscripts.

I've been lucky, I guess: I've had very few duds.

What really got under my skin this time, though, is that the editor - not associate editor, or special issue editor, or anything like that - the editor of the freaking journal himself - clearly shipped this paper to reviewers without having even given it a cursory once over.  This must be so, because it took me mere minutes to realize how bad the paper was going to be.  The abstract read like it had been fed through a bad Klingon translator and back again a dozen times, each time chipping away at grammar, spelling, and composition till all that was left was a series of essentially disconnected words.

It seems the Web is full, these days, of chicken-little sensationalism about the allegedly sorry state of academic publishing.  It's inevitable, really.  We keep insisting that more and more education (rather than better and better education) is everyone's birthright.  We keep insisting that the only measure of academic worth is publication and citation count.  It follows that there will be a significant increase in shady and half-assed publishers making money by scamming academics, under the simple guise of filling a market need.  That we seem perfectly willing to take it* is concerning and disappointing, but also the sort of thing that happens in any sufficiently complex system - it lags.  There was a decades-long lag between the identification of the ills of smoking, for instance, and its management and control.  Ditto for climate change.  Ditto for electoral reform. The list is endless.  And we can add to this list the general lethargy of academia to deal with its own systemic problems.

Especially in such an environment, one would think that a top journal fronted by a leading organization would make sure it was doing everything as right as rain.

The only upside to this fiasco is that I'm more convinced than ever that it'll be a cold day in hell before I let myself turn in a bad review.

UPDATE 11 June 2015:

I had a brief email exchange with the editor on the matter. Here is his last response:
I have a quota on the number of papers that I can reject without sending them out for review. Unfortunately, we have been getting a lot of papers with poor English that I have rejecting right a way. Since I had reach my quita, I had to send just very few papers out. I do apologize for waisting your and other reviewrs time but had no choice.
So, the problem goes much deeper than might have previously been imagined.  Assuming the quota is set by the organization, then we have a truly systemic problem here rooted in idiotic policy. However, I still don't see why the editor has to just roll over for this kind of lunacy.  He could seek out editors of other journals who are in the same situation and try to force a policy change - strength in numbers, and all that.  He could just publicly quit his editorship.  He could even just go public with this policy-rot.  None of this should come back to haunt him, as editorship is a purely voluntary activity.

And the organization itself has to carry a substantial portion of the blame too.  How could they not gather the appropriate metrics to see this problem looming?  These days, that kind of operation is pretty much trivial to implement.

This just gets stinkier and stinkier.

* There is a tried and true way of alleviating this.  It's called "regulation."  In this case, we hsould establish international standards on the nature of the scientific publishing process - including peer-review - and make everything open and transparent.  But that's a topic for another post.



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The Trouble with Normal...: I hate it when this happens
I hate it when this happens
The Trouble with Normal...
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