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Empirical analysis tells Reviewer 2: “Go F‘ Yourself”




Peer review is often the key hurdle between obtaining some data and getting it published in the scientific literature. As such, it’s often essential to keeping questionable results out of the scientific literature. But for vast numbers of scientists with solid-but-unexciting results, it can be a hurdle that raises frustrations to thermonuclear levels. So it’s no surprise that many scientists privately wish that certain reviewers would end up engaged in activities that aren’t mentionable in a largely family-friendly publication like Ars.

What was a surprise was to see a peer-reviewed publication make this wish public. Very public. As in entitling the paper “Dear Reviewer 2: Go F’ Yourself” levels of public.

Naturally, we read the paper and got in touch with its author, Iowa State’s David Peterson, to find out the details of the study. The key detail is that the title’s somewhat misleading: it’s actually Reviewer 3 who’s the heartless bastard that keeps trying to torpedo the careers of other academics. For the rest, well, read on.

We have to ask: why?

Peterson laid out his case for looking at one particular reviewer in his paper, in the section helpfully entitled “Why Reviewer 2?”

The main motivation for this article is that the broader community has decided that Reviewer 2 is a monster. A Google search for “Reviewer 2” produces the interdisciplinary Facebook group “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped!” (which has over 9,000 members), a blog entry entitled “How Not to Be Reviewer #2,” and countless images combining almost every visual meme imaginable. In academia, it is fair to say that Reviewer 2 is the ultimate boogeyman. He is Pennywise the Clown, combined with el chupacabra, wrapped in the Blair Witch.

Put another way, Peterson wrote “Reviewer 2 is dismissive of other people’s work, lazy, belligerent, and smug.”

But that doesn’t get at the larger issue: why look at this issue at all? Peterson said that it’s more or less because he had the data anyway. He was the editor of the journal Political Behavior for four years, and Peterson had been analyzing the results of its peer review as part of a process looking for any systemic biases in outcomes based on things like the race or gender of people who tried to publish there. “So I had all the data, right? I had sort of collected it all for this other project,” he told Ars. “And then it dawned on me—honestly, after a beer or two—that I could try to test this. It’s pretty straightforward, you know? It’s a really, really straightforward statistical test.”

Make that two statistical tests. In the first, Peterson checked whether there was any systematic difference in the ratings of papers based on reviewer number. That turned up absolutely nothing. But Peterson wasn’t done. “There’s this sort of second possibility—that when academics… when they get mad at reviews, really, it’s the negative outlier that we hate, right? And so maybe I could try to capture that idea that Reviewer 2 is the reviewer number likely to matter for being one category on average lower than the mean of the other reviewers.”

He did the statistics to check if any reviewer frequently scored papers quite differently from his other peers. “I developed an original measure of ‘being Reviewer 2,'” Peterson wrote, before going on to say “the real problem of Reviewer 2 is that he is an outlier and that can only be seen when the manuscript is strong enough to get positive evaluations from the other reviewers. This is when Reviewer 2 crushes your hopes.”

We could have told you that

Amazingly, this turned up something. When asked whether this surprised him, Peterson’s response was “Oh, God, yeah.” But the surprise didn’t end at the fact that there was any result at all; it extended to the fact that the outlier wasn’t Reviewer 2.

It was Reviewer 3.

Those of you who are biologists will be nodding sagely as (confirmed via Dr. Beth Mole) that field has always blamed Reviewer 3. In fact, there’s an entire Downfall meme about Reviewer 3.

Caution: lots of NSFW fake subtitles.

We asked Peterson about this, and he speculated that biologists might just be a bit more sharp when it comes to picking out the nefarious reviewer. “I think biologists had it right,”” he told Ars. “I think biologists might be a little better at this than [political scientists] are. Honestly, that’s amusing to me. And I’m not sure why different disciplines would choose different numbers to make the devil.”

He suggests it might have something to do with how reviewers are chosen. Reviewers for Political Behavior end up in the dreaded 2 slot largely by self selection. Knowing many potential reviewers would say no for various reasons, Peterson said he would send requests out to more people than he needed. Anyone who said yes would simply get assigned a reviewer number based on the order in which they replied. Other journals might handle that differently.

What stood out to Peterson was the fact that, at least among political scientists, Reviewer 3 is the problem, yet the community has managed to shift the blame to someone else. “Not only is Reviewer 3 the bad actor, but Reviewer 3’s crafty enough that they get Reviewer 2 blamed,” he told Ars. “Which kind of tickled me to no end, frankly.”

How do you get this published?

In the paper, Peterson skips the normal academic language to evaluate this: “This seems like it is the ultimate jerk move.” Language like that, the references to el chupacabra, and the title itself are all pretty unusual in the academic literature. But Peterson got it published without abusing the fact that he was an editor. Part of this is due to the fact that, at its heart, this is a quantitative analysis of human behavior, the sort of study that’s handled by a lot of journals.

Still, that didn’t make publishing it easy. “This was not the first journal I submitted it to,” he admitted. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that some of his reviewers had somehow managed to remain oblivious to the whole concept of a reviewer from hell. “I kept getting reviewers who had never heard of a Reviewer 2 idea,” he said. “So the basic idea that there is this jerk out there was totally foreign to them, and so they didn’t understand why anyone would ever think this was an interesting question. Which amazed me. But yeah.”

Eventually, he had a chat with the people who would serve as editors in the journal where it was published. “I’ve known the editors of Social Science Quarterly for a long time and had a conversation with them before I submitted it, to make sure that they were going to recognize it for what it was,” Peterson said.

Even so, it wasn’t necessarily easy for them to translate that into getting the paper accepted. “I believe that the editors were careful in their selection of reviewers,” Peterson acknowledged.

The other hitch he had with editing is the title, which combines an obscenity with blaming the wrong reviewer—the latter of which almost got changed to Reviewer 3 by a copyeditor. “When I sent it to other journals. The title was ‘Is Reviewer 2 really Reviewer 2?’ And that’s probably a better title, but I kinda like this one more myself.”

Social Science Quarterly, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.12824  (About DOIs).

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COVID was the leading cause of death in Americans aged 45-54 in 2021



Enlarge / A woman watches white flags on the National Mall on September 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. Over 660,000 white flags were installed here to honor Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19 epidemic.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in Americans between March 2020 and October 2021, accounting for one in every eight deaths.

In that time frame, COVID-19 ranked in the top five causes of death for every age group of people older than 15 years. Between January and October 2021, the pandemic disease was the leading cause of death among people 45 to 54 years old.

That’s all according to a study of national death certificate data, published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

The study found COVID-19 caused roughly 700,000 deaths between March 2020 and October 2021. The pandemic disease trailed only heart disease and cancer, which caused roughly 2.15 million collectively in that time frame. The fourth and fifth deadliest afflictions in the US were accidental deaths—including car crashes, overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths—and stroke, which collectively caused around 624,000 deaths during that period.

The authors, led by Meredith Shiels, an expert in cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute, broke up the time frame into two sections: the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to December 2020, and January 2021 to October 2021, the last month for which there was complete data. This revealed age-specific trends, likely driven partly by uptake of vaccines and other mitigation efforts.

In the 2020 period, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in people aged 85 and over, but, amid high vaccine uptake in this age group, it fell to the third leading cause of death from January to October 2021.

Younger adults saw the opposite trend. For those aged 45 to 54, COVID-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the 2020 period but jumped to the leading cause of death in 2021. Likewise, in those aged 35 to 44, COVID-19 jumped from the fifth leading cause of death in 2020 to the second leading cause in 2021. And for those aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 34, COVID-19 wasn’t in the top five in 2020, but ranked as the fourth leading cause of death in both age groups in 2021.

For those aged 55 to 84, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in both time periods.

The study is limited by the potential for misclassifying deaths on death certificates. But the authors were careful to select a time cutoff that would limit provisional or incomplete data from skewing the findings. That meant, however, that the study did not include deaths from part of the delta wave or the towering omicron wave in January 2022. Since October 2021, around 300,000 additional people in the US have died from COVID-19.

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Russian astronauts use space station to promote anti-Ukraine propaganda



Enlarge / Cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov pose with a flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic on the International Space Station.

The Russian state space corporation responsible for spaceflight activities, Roscosmos, on Monday posted images to its official Telegram channel showing three cosmonauts with the tri-color flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic.

The photos were taken recently on board the International Space Station and show smiling cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveyev, and Sergey Korsakov posing with the flags.

“This is a long-awaited day that residents of the occupied areas of the Luhansk region have been waiting for eight years,” the Roscosmos message stated. “We are confident that July 3, 2022, will forever go down in the history of the republic.”

The images and social media posting represent the most blatant use of the International Space Station—which is operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency—for Russian propaganda purposes since the invasion of Ukraine.

Luhansk and Donetsk are two breakaway “quasi-states” in the eastern region of Ukraine known as the Donbas. Ukraine and Russia have battled over the two regions since 2014, as Russia has agitated separatists in the Ukrainian territory. The United Nations does not recognize the two “republics,” and Ukraine has designated them as “temporarily occupied territories.” Fighting has heated up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This past weekend, Russian forces claimed to have established control over the entire Luhansk region.

A professional relationship

NASA and Roscosmos, as well as other space agencies, have continued cooperating on the International Space Station since the invasion began. Some US officials have suggested that NASA should consider breaking ties with Russia in space due to the atrocities in Ukraine. However, the space agency’s administrator has defended the partnership on the basis that the station flies above geopolitical tensions on Earth. NASA also wants to keep flying the station, as breaking the US segment from the Russian segment would be difficult and potentially fatal to the operation of the orbital facility.

In an interview published Monday in the German publication Der Spiegel, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson reiterated this stance.

“In the midst of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were mortal enemies and their nuclear weapons could be used at any time, a US and a Soviet spacecraft met in space in 1975,” Nelson said. “Peaceful cooperation continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our space shuttle docked with the Russian space station Mir. And then we decided to build the International Space Station together. Both countries are needed for operations, the Russians for propulsion, the Americans for power. We will continue to have a very professional relationship between cosmonauts and astronauts to keep this station alive.”

Nevertheless the provocative actions this weekend by Roscosmos, with its cosmonauts celebrating the so-called liberation of Ukrainian territory, brings the bloody conflict on Earth into space. To some observers, such as former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, Russia’s use of the space station for propaganda purposes is unacceptable.

“I am incredibly disappointed to see cosmonauts and Roscosmos using the International Space Station as a platform to promote their illegal and immoral war, where civilians are being killed every day,” said Virts, who flew side by side with Russians and commanded the space station in 2015. “The space station is supposed to be a symbol of peace and cooperation.”

Virts said NASA has largely been trying to look the other way when it comes to Russian actions, most notably when it comes to Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, who has made numerous jingoistic statements about the war. But in this case, he said, the agency really cannot afford to.

Seat swap

NASA’s cooperation with Russia may come into greater public focus in a couple of months. At present, a NASA astronaut named Frank Rubio is scheduled to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the station in September. Around the same time, a Russian cosmonaut named Anna Kikina is due to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle to the station as part of the seat swap. The arrangement has not been formally agreed to by the US and Russian government.

In his German interview, Nelson defended the swap, saying, “It makes a lot of sense for us. You need both Russians and Americans to operate the space station. What happens if something is wrong with one of our spacecraft? We need the other vehicle as a back-up. And that’s why we will continue to have crew exchanges.”

Such an argument may soon ring hollow, however. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft may make its first crewed test flight before the end of this year, and if it is successful NASA will have two US spacecraft capable of reaching the station.

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How the Yurok Tribe is bringing back the California Condor



Enlarge / The California condor is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987, but the species has been reintroduced in California and Arizona.

The first California condor to reach Yurok ancestral land in over a century arrived by plane and car in late March of 2022. The small plane that carried Condor 746 had a rough landing, and the bird was irritable. He rattled around in a large dog crate during the three-hour drive to the tribe’s newly built condor facility, in a remote location in Redwood National Park.

Once there, he hopped into the flight pen, a tall enclosure of wire mesh, furnished with log perches and a drinking pool. At 8 years old, Condor 746 is an adult, his naked head bright pink instead of the black found in younger birds. He’s on loan from the captive breeding program at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. His job is to act as the mentor for four juvenile birds who will become the founders of a reborn condor society in Yurok country.

“We have mentors because condors are so social,” says Joe Burnett, California Condor Recovery Program Manager at the Ventana Wildlife Society. Young birds in a pen with no adult will become unruly. “You get the Lord of the Flies syndrome,” says Burnett. He and his colleagues quickly learned that release programs need an adult to serve as a role model and enforce the social hierarchy that is crucial to the flock’s survival.

A few days after 746 arrived, Condor A0, age 2, entered the flight pen. The first thing she focused on was 746, lounging on a perch. Understanding that she was in a safe place, A0 checked out the food—the carcass of a stillborn calf—then flapped onto a perch and fluffed up her feathers, a sign of avian contentment. Three young male condors, tagged A1, A2, and A3, followed. The youngsters had been living together for months at other condor facilities in Boise, Idaho, and San Simeon, California, and they already felt at home with each other.

Condor, known as prey-go-neesh in the native language, is sacred to the Yurok people. The Yurok reservation lies along the Klamath River in northwest California, but much of the tribe’s ancestral land is now in the hands of government agencies or private landowners. The tribe has been working to bring back the California condor since 2003, when a group of elders identified the bird as a keystone species for both culture and ecology, and therefore the most important land-based creature in need of restoration.

Nineteen years after the Yurok made that bold decision, the condors arrived. Elders who had worked toward that pivotal moment watched as Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Wildlife Department, and her colleagues released each newcomer into the pen.

Williams-Claussen’s job is to understand the details of condor biology and to interpret Yurok culture for the wider world. A tribal member, she grew up on the coast near the mouth of the Klamath, and went off to Harvard University. She didn’t set out to be a condor biologist, but when she returned in 2007 with a degree in biochemical sciences, condor restoration was the work her people needed her to do. Williams-Claussen has since spent 14 years living and breathing condors, learning how to handle them, building partnerships with government agencies, and listening to what Yurok elders have to say about the great bird.

The California condor is a critically endangered species: In the 1980s, the total population dwindled to fewer than 30 individuals. Biologists concluded the species’ only chance of survival lay in capturing every living condor in order to breed the birds in captivity, safe from poisons and power lines.

Reintroducing condors to the wild proved difficult, however, and the process became a dramatic lesson for biologists on the importance of parenting and the slow pace of growing up among these long-lived, highly social birds. Scientists learned that time spent with adults was critical to the behavioral development of young condors. They also found that in a species where adults follow and protect their offspring for a year or more after the birds fledge, youngsters pioneering landscapes empty of condors require lots of human babysitting.

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