'Case Studies of Peer Review'

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Eve Armstrong, "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf: Case Studies of Peer Review":

Abstract: I present for your appraisal three independent cases of the manuscript referee process conducted by a venerable peer-reviewed scientific journal. Each case involves a little pig, who submitted for consideration a theoretical plan for a house to be constructed presently, in a faraway land. An anonymous big bad wolf was assigned by the journal to assess the merit of these manuscripts. The pigs proposed three distinct construction frameworks, which varied in physical and mathematical sophistication. The first little pig submitted a model of straw, based on the numerical method of toe-counting. His design included odd features, such as spilled millet and cloven-hoofprints on the window sill — possibly a ploy to distract the wolf from the manuscript's facile mathematical foundation. The second little pig used a more advanced approach, employing Newton's classical laws of motion, to propose a house of sticks. This pig included in her manuscript copious citations by a specific wolf, possibly aiming to ensure acceptance by flattering the wolf whom she anticipated would be the referee. The third little pig described an ostentatious house of bricks based on an elaborate dynamical systems and stability analysis, possibly scheming to dazzle and impress. The big bad wolf did not appear moved by any of the pigs' tactics. His recommendations were, for straw: the minor revision of water-proofing; for sticks: the major revision of fire-proofing, given concerns surrounding climate change; for bricks: unequivocal rejection, accompanied by multiple derogatory comments regarding "high-and-mighty theorists." I describe each case in detail, and suggest that the wolf's reports might be driven as much by self interest as the manuscripts themselves — namely, that at the time the wolf wrote the reviews, he was rather hungry. Finally, I examine morals learned, if any.

Previously-cited works by Dr. Armstrong include

Fans of Dr. Armstrong's work will be glad to learn that she has recently published a full-length collection, Murder By Theory: Two Tales from the Ivory Tower's Dark Side. That work's blurb on Amazon:

Competitive Edge” welcomes us to the unremarkable town of Arlington, home to the tepidly esteemed Arlington University. Here, the local news buzzes as residents receive anonymous notes of a peculiar nature. Each note explains the physics underlying a murder that the note-writer – in theory – could have wrought upon the note-receiver, but thus far has chosen not to. As we probe the writer’s identity, we confront the relationship between a university eager to please its community, and a community eager for sensational news – and the effect upon an individual competing to survive in such a circus.

The Optimization of Milos Kriska” fast-forwards us to the speculative year of 2033, where disasters wrought by climate change and multiple pandemics have rendered the world a perilous place. In a desperate move to save humanity, the citizens of the United States have given scientists carte blanche to run the government. Scientific excellence is Priority Number One — more precious, even, than the life of any one human being. With this stage set, we follow a group of theoretical astrophysicists who consider it their civic duty to murder a colleague, because he is obstructing the publication of an important scientific manuscript. Their ensuing antics tackle the fraught peer review process and the risk of sacrificing one’s morality for career success. And they teach us that, generally, theorists are not talented murderers.



  1. Cheryl Thornett said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 5:50 am

    Happy March 32nd. ;-)

  2. Laura Morland said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 6:06 am

    According to her Amazon blurb,

    Eve Armstrong is an assistant professor of physics at New York Institute of Technology in Manhattan, and a research associate in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics. She creates science-themed satire for both print and performance. The physics in "Murder by Theory" includes topics that she teaches her students, and research that she publishes regularly in scientific journals. Recently she has created a stand-up comedy troupe of undergraduate students for public engagement events, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Currently she is working on a memoir of a medical emergency that led her to her chosen career: "You Are Here: What I've Learned from the Tumor in my Head," to be completed in 2023. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, miniature schnauzer, two cats, and nine pairs of running shoes.

    I checked, and Eve Armstrong is indeed on the faculty here https://www.nyit.edu/directory and there is, apparently a Department of Astrophysics at the AMNH, https://www.amnh.org/research/physical-sciences/astrophysics, with which she is associated: https://www.amnh.org/research/staff-directory/eve-armstrong

    Forgive me my provincial worldview – before checking, I'd never heard of the "New York Institute of Technology" and I doubted that the American Museum of Natural History would have a "Department of Astrophysics." Happy to be wrong on both counts!

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 6:22 am

    I do not think that I was previously aware of Dr Armstrong's publications, but on following the link to the first of those linked above, I started reading her Non-detection of the Tooth Fairy at Optical Wavelengths(2012). Slightly puzzled by the first occurrence "limiting magnitude of V = 18.4 (9)" in the abstract, I initially passed over it, but on encountering a second occurrence on p.~2, section 2 (Observations), para.~1, I decided to investigate further. Thinking that the (9) might be a reference to a numbered endnote or numbered bibliograhical entry, I scrolled to the end of the paper, but found no matching "9", parenthesised or otherwise. I wonder if a reader more familiar with Dr Armstrong's work could shed any light on this.

  4. KeithB said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 7:23 am

    I think it is a mathematical notation indicating the uncertainty in the last digit. I was hoping to use Abramowitz and Stegun (Big Red) as a reference, but could not find it.

  5. Anthony said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 8:40 am

    They Hayden Planetarium is part of the American Museum of Natural History, so it's not too surprising that there's a Department of Astrophysics.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 9:06 am

    If I recall correctly, that Department was established by Neil deGrasse Tyson when he took over as Director of the Planetarium.

  7. Eve Armstrong said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 10:16 am

    Hi All – This is Eve Armstrong. I'm thrilled by your interest in the articles; thank you. Indeed, the (9) in "… Tooth Fairy …" refers to the uncertainty in the last digit. (I realize I can't prove that I'm me here. But if you go to http://reality-aside.com and email me, I'll reply.)

  8. AntC said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 3:28 pm

    In other science news "a title that I ever thought I’d use", a big bad wolf (who I used to respect) has huffed and puffed and "incompetently used the Kardashian index".

    He apparently was not perpetrating an April's Fool two years ago when " He mocked those who worried that the “68 deaths from Covid-19 in the US as of 16 March will increase exponentially to 680, 6,800, 68,000, 680,000”. He estimated that the US might suffer only 10,000 deaths. He also was cynical that vaccines or treatments could be developed in any timeframe that would affect the trajectory of the pandemic." [The Guardian}

  9. Yuval said,

    April 2, 2022 @ 1:34 am

    "Murder, She Surmised".

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    April 2, 2022 @ 3:56 am

    « "a title that I ever thought I’d use" » — doesn't make sense to me without the omitted leading "This isn’t " …

  11. Andrew Usher said,

    April 3, 2022 @ 7:35 pm

    It is entirely unsurprising that AntC like others of that opinion would still be obsessed with coronavirus to the point of introducing it in an unrelated thread intended as humor only. I haven't done that, even though my opposite opinion is known enough. When only only one side of an issue seems to get people to lose their rational minds, that's telling enough.

    To the actual topic I have nothing to say.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

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