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JBAA Letters section

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JBAA Letters section

During a recent extended communication with the Editor of the BAA Journal concerning a submission I made to the Letters section, a number of issues arose which I think it is important to bring to the attention of the general membership.

The whole thing started when I studied the paper by Giovanni di Giovanni in the April 2016 edition of the Journal, detailing a method for the estimation of times of contacts in eclipses and transits by means of the analysis of a series of digital images. I had a number of concerns about the process used to generate the estimates from the measured data and so felt I had to raise these via the Journal. The only vehicle for rapid feedback available to members is the Letters section, and so I constructed a relatively brief critique of the paper and sent it off to the Editor. An acknowledgement of receipt was given, but the contribution did not subsequently appear in the Journal. On enquiring why this was so I received the briefest of replies, merely stating that "this letter is not deemed suitable for publication in the Journal". Feeling this to be an unsatisfactory response, I asked whether a fuller explanation of the contribution's "unsuitability" could be given, as it seemed I might have spent time and trouble on a submission which may have (unknown to me) fallen outside the guidelines.

Unfortunately, the subsequent reply was almost as brief as the first, just saying that "the Editor's decision is final and no further correspondence can be entered into". This was frustrating, as not knowing which sort of contributions are acceptable as Letters must surely be a considerable disincentive to putting in the work necessary to produce them. I thus persisted, making the point that there is a lack of information in this area and also, in an effort to move the discussion forward, suggesting that the problem may have been that my contribution was a critique of a refereed paper - a style which almost never appears in the Journal. When a reply was finally received (after I had sent a reminder), it was equally as unhelpful as those received previously and did not address my second point at all: it did however include a link to a page on the BAA website which gave some information about Letters. This was far too general to be useful, but included the (to me) disturbing revelation that a submission could be rejected simply because the Editor does not find it "significant or interesting". Given that the Letters section is the only practical means a BAA member has of communicating with his or her fellows in print, and in particular of commenting on articles in the Journal, surely this is unreasonable: the personal preferences of the Editor must be secondary to the needs of the membership as a whole.

I responded to voice these concerns, and also to make the point that authors of formal JBAA papers at least receive some form of feedback from their referees so why was there this blank refusal to even engage in discussion about the content of the much less formal Letters? Most regrettably, no further reply was received from the JBAA Editor and so I felt I had no option but to turn to the Forum.

The above account, though long, is of course but a précis of a series of much longer emails, which are available should any member wish to read them. The original critique is, likewise, available - please contact me if you would like to find out what an "unsuitable" contribution looks like! In summary though, I feel the following questions must be answered:-

1) Why did the JBAA Editor feel it was appropriate to completely refuse to engage with me on my queries?

2) Should not the acceptable content of the Letters section be much more closely defined, so potential contributors know where they stand?

3) Should not the Letters section be formulated to reflect the interests and views of the members, rather than those of the Editor?

4) If it is deemed that the Letters section is not the appropriate place to publish critiques of JBAA papers, then where is the correct place?

Other issues will undoubtedly crop up in the discussion that I hope will now ensue, but the above should be sufficient to kick things off. I await comments with interest!

Steve Holmes
BAA Member 32869

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Letters

Dear Steve,

I think you are being a little unfair here. We cannot publish all letters in the Journal. This is made clear in the instructions to authors, which say: “The Journal maintains a lively Letters column and welcomes communications on any subject to do with astronomy, especially those of particular interest to amateurs. Please e-mail to the Editor ….. The Editor reserves the right to shorten or edit letters in the interests of clarity, brevity and style, and to reject material that she does not find significant or interesting. A maximum length of 350 words is recommended.”

The final decision must lie with the Editor and I don't believe a tighter definition will help.

Kind regards,

Jeremy

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JBAA Letters section

Dear Jeremy,

I of course realise that not all Letters can be published - it's the way those to be published and those to be rejected are decided that I am questioning.

My first point was that surely the interests of the membership should be a deciding factor, not those of the Editor - this can lead to rejection for purely arbitrary reasons.

Secondly, I would have thought that a comment on a published JBAA paper deserves to be seen by the membership, in order to justify the Journal's (presumed) desire to see itself as a peer-reviewed vehicle. If the comment turns out to be fallacious or mis-construed, then it is up to the membership to say so by means of a further contribution. That is what peer-review is all about!

And lastly, why could I (and presumably other contributors) not have been given more information about the reason for rejection? If one doesn't know why a contribution has been rejected how can one ever submit with confidence? Is not the Editor supposed to encourage and advise contributors rather than frustrate them?

Best regards,

 Steve

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19th Century ?

Discussing a paper via the letters page in a bi-monthy journal all seems rather 19th century to me. Given that we are here using this  forum, does anyone else find it rather ironic and a little odd that we are discussing the "meta-subject" rather than the subject itself? 

Robin

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JBAA Letters section

In answer to Robin's question, "No, I don't". One has to be careful to distinguish between a comment (i.e. a response to the paper) and the groundrules defining how the comment can be made. The issues I am raising refer to the groundrules - once these are defined one can then move on to formulating the comments themselves.

There would appear to be a sub-text inherent in Robin's remark however - that the Forum would be a better place to discuss papers than the Journal. In this I would fundamentally disagree with him. The protocol for writing, submitting, refereeing and reviewing "learned papers" is well-established throughout the scientific community, and proceeds by the open publication of the paper and its comments in the relevant Journal. By doing so, a reader of the original paper can readily access all parts of any subsequent discussion, and the final conclusion, and thus be sure that the information given in the paper is accurate and reliable (or not, as the case may be). A Forum discussion, on the other hand, is a transitory thing with no firm link to the original paper and so a later reader may not be aware that a discussion has even occurred, let alone what the final judgement on the paper was. It must also be born in mind that the reader may not be a member of the BAA and so even if they think to consult the Forum they probably will not be able to join in the discussion, as this requires a log-on to be established. The only way in which the Forum scores over formal publication is "turn-round time", but even so this may not be an actual advantage as knowing that there will be a delay before your response is published should encourage a contributor to do the research and carefully think through their submission rather than just bash off a quick reply.

Regards,

Steve

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Hi Steve,

Hi Steve,

In practise critiques of papers in the way you describe are rarely published in any scientific journals. Where the findings of a paper are questioned it is usual to do so through the publication of another paper, offering further evidence which may lead to alternative conclusions. The scientific community is then left to judge the validity of the two bodies of work and carry out further investigations to clarify the situation.

If however you are not ready at this stage to offer alternative evidence by way of  a formal paper and  just want to test out your thoughts on specifically why "the process used in the paper to generate the estimates from the measured data" might not be sufficiently robust, even though the referees of the paper apparently thought they were, then I have found an informal discussion with ones peers as could be done here, can be a very effective in clarifying ones thinking.

Cheers

Robin

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JBAA Letters section

Hi Robin,

While I would agree with you that the submission of a further paper would be the correct (and usual) course of action if one wanted to publicise an alternative theory, the most obvious problem here is one of time-delay. It is not unusual for there to be an interval of a year between the submission of a paper to the JBAA and its publication, by which time most readers will have forgotten what the original paper was about anyway! I can't say whether this is typical of other learned Journals, but even in their case the adoption of "pre-publication" revelation has proved a necessary part of the review process - the "arXiv" server being the prime example. While a delay of this magnitude might be acceptable for theories involving fundamental issues, I do think a faster process is needed for the sort of papers published in the JBAA. Bi-monthly Letters are certainly not perfect in this respect, but they are definitely better than annual papers!

The above of course assumes that one wishes to put forward an alternative theory, rather than simply comment on certain aspects of the original paper (as I was). These comments may not invalidate the original conclusions, but need to be addressed before a fully-robust position can be reached. In this case, a formal paper is almost certainly inappropriate and so the responder needs a means of putting his or her ideas forward in a different way. Currently, the Letters section is the only vehicle available for this and so it must be made clear whether such submissions are (or are not) acceptable as Letters - and if they are not, how they are to be published must also be made clear.

Discussion via the BAA Forum can, as you say, help to clarify ideas (assuming this is required). However, it suffers not only from the problems alluded to in my previous post, but (like any forum) can also result in "off-topic" comments and somewhat random trains of thought. It will also only reach those who are dedicated "Forum watchers" whereas a published comment will place itself before the eyes of the entire membership - few may read it, but at least it will clearly announce its presence. Furthermore, even if the Forum reaches a consensus conclusion on the ideas being put forward, how is this to be reflected back into the JBAA as a counter to the original article? Presumably as a Letter, at which point the discussion might well start all over again!

Regards,

Steve

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JBAA Letters section

Hi Steve,

Have you been able to discuss this with the original author? Perhaps if you can reach an agreed view, an author's amendment to the paper might be appropriate and acceptable to the editor, avoiding the risk a protracted discussion.   Although not strictly peer review,  ArXiv can indeed be rather good in this respect where the on line version can reference the conventionally published version and be subsequently revised with the original version still accessible. (and useful for us poor amateurs unable to access papers behind paywalls of course!) It still would not allow easy tracking back from the Journal version though unless pre published on arXiv and referenced in the Journal version. I see some journals actively encourage authors to mirror their papers on arXiv. I am not sure what JBAA view would be on this however.

Cheers

Robin

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JBAA Letters section

Hi Robin,

I did not in fact attempt to contact the original author as I did not feel that this was the appropriate way to comment on his paper (see my earlier posts!). However, discussion with the original author could indeed a viable option within a somewhat looser commenting structure, but does require that he/she is contactable at the same address after maybe over a year, is willing to engage in discussion, and is amenable to publishing a correction should this become necessary. Assuming all this is possible, direct contact is perhaps on a par with discussion in the Forum, lacking the wider view of other members but (hopefully) gaining from the author's insights. A combination of the two is perhaps the best solution if actual publishing is not to be used but does, as you say, risk a protracted discussion.

Indeed, direct contact is what I felt the inadequate responses I had received from the Editor forced me to do when I wished to comment on a later JBAA paper by Jean Meeus. My remarks were met with Jean's usual courtesy, and he graciously agreed that some phrases he used could have been worded slightly differently to make his points more accurately. However, it is most unlikely that he would be keen to publish these minor corrections himself and of course if I were to do so my contribution would have to surmount the hurdle of being "of interest to the Editor". While this is of no great import in this particular case, if a significant deficiency was identified in a paper but was unable to be fed back into print then the consequences could be more serious.

I therefore feel (and it seems you do too) that, whatever the means used to facilitate the discussion, there is a need for a mechanism by which comments on papers (whether by the original author or not) can be freely published in the Journal. If not in the Letters section, then where? I was certainly not suggesting that ArXiv be used, as that would throw up all sorts of problems of its own, but maybe the Journal should permit of a contribution which is part-way between a Paper and a Letter? i.e. something which is only lightly refereed, maybe just by the Papers Editor (allowing it to be quickly published), and does not have to fulfil any particular "interest" criteria - its interest being inherent in the fact that it is a comment or correction on an already-published paper.

Are we heading in the right direction here, do you think?

Regards,

Steve