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The audacity of anonymity

Peer-review can be brutal. For every one positive reviewer you get one that would rather be doing something else and they WILL let you know and WILL take it out on you. Maybe it’s because I’m still getting used to the journal publication process, but behind the veil of anonymity people can be cruel. We see, and these days somewhat expect, it from public forums like facebook, twitter, or even linkedin, but maybe I’m naïve enough to have thought it wouldn’t happen in the world of peer-review. Afterall, we’re all professionals here, right?

Yesterday I nearly broke down. You never really understand the trauma of something until you’re finally out from under it. For me that was robot paper (here). Robot paper was my first introduction to journal publications and the third of my first author papers to be accepted (out of four that slowly started to back up). The experience almost broke me, for four years this paper followed me around and for four years we would routinely submit it only to be slapped in the face by at least one reviewer for it.

As of yesterday evening, I’ve submitted the final files for publication. The next time you hear about robot paper I’ll be discussing, with as much glee as I can after this experience, all the interesting things I designed.

The experience was painful, but the responses were what really hurt. Now, I am used to arguing for a methodology or having something I proposed torn to shreds. I was taught that we attack the work, not the person, and to that extent despite having my pride hurt, I don’t take attacks on my work personally. It’s part of the process and I know the end result will be worth the critiques. I’m being overdramatic with the term attack, really we propose better methods or ask for clarification on certain methods used. In my line of work, we’re all friends (or a little “science family”) just doing the best we can. The idea is to lift each other up and to do that we sometimes have to “attack” the scientific structure we’ve built to make sure it holds up. That’s the process I’m used to dealing with and I’m okay with that.

Slightly veiled personal attacks on the other hand are never something I’ve been okay with. I don’t do well with people trying to insinuate something about me as a person. I believe if you’re going to say something, you may as well just come out and say it. I’m a very direct person like that, but I’m also incredibly polite so I don’t typically like to be rude unless someone is being rude to someone I care about.

I’m not sure how many times we submitted robot paper. It was over five under ten for sure, but almost every time we got reviews back, only once was it desk rejected (as in not reviewed because the editor didn’t feel like it was a good fit for the journal). So I have a laundry list of feedback from other people, people whom I’ve never met, don’t know, and who don’t know me personally, but have read this paper.

For every kind response we got, we also got someone who clearly did not want to read the paper or did not want to be a reviewer in the first place. People who suggested we had nothing new to offer without explaining in detail why or citing other works so we can refute the claim.

I’ve mentioned one reviewer of this last round who specifically did this (they weren’t the first, sadly). They said that our work was not novel, but didn’t bother providing any sort of evidence. When we responded saying that we could not refute the claim without evidence they dropped the complaint, simply said our paper was “too redundant,” but the paper was still accepted for publication. We’ve even had reviewers who said this work wasn’t good enough for publication and one person who said something along the lines of we were wasting their time. One who claimed that our robot isn’t a “robot” because we didn’t make it move.

Keep in mind the paper is on the novel way we designed the robot and how the properties of the robot can be tuned to match those of a human, thus giving a testbed for human-like control strategies for walking, balancing, etc and for use in prosthetics with more human-like features. The next few papers will be on the control strategies and what not for the robot itself, but that won’t be done by me. That’s someone else’s Masters/PhD project. Speaking of which, this was so much work, my overseas colaborator, who is far too kind, thought the knee alone was my PhD work and was surprised to see I built the full robot (since he was specifically involved in the knee design and has since started using it for prosthetics, yay!).

Overall I think I’m just disappointed by the community as a whole for the way the paper got treated. Biomimetic research (mimicking biology for engineering purposes) is still not a widely accepted methodology for robotics/prosthetics/engineering in general. It’s sad because I feel it’s looked down on and I definitely got that feeling from this paper.

In the five years since I first developed the knee for this robot, nothing has come close (as far as I’m aware) to matching the properties. The knee was a tough thing to design and took most of the two years I spent developing the robot, but it has exceptional mechanical properties (low sliding to rolling ratio, and a large changing center of rotation to name two). I hate to sound like a broken record, especially since I don’t want to be “too redundant,” but I’m still very proud of the work I did. Even if the engineering community doesn’t appreciate it.

Luckily since I jumped ship to neuroengineering things have been better in that regard. I still see the occasional frustrating review, but nothing like what happened with robot paper. It’s an experience I’m still coming to terms with, obviously. But like I said the next time we talk about robot paper, it will be in happier terms.

4 responses

  1. Yes, if someone doesn’t know you, they’ll tend to be more “free” with their opinions. But by the same token, their opinions are not worth as much, on account of not being fully informed. So try not to take the hints of meanness too much to heart, maybe. They reflect on the reviewer, not you.

    How tightly does a journal stay within a paper’s field when it selects reviewers for the paper? I have to wonder how familiar some of your reviewers were with a project of this kind, if they did not grasp the degree of effort that went into this phase. It might be easy for a roboticist with a primary background in controls to write off pure mechanical work as “trivial,” for instance.

    All I know is, I’ve been poking at my quadruped design since I was in undergrad, I think, and I’m still trying to get the basic frame to be sound before I even try actuating anything. Granted I do not have much education in the mechanical side of things, so of course I would be slow, because I’m fumbling in the dark a bit. But that’s just the thing: it looked a lot easier before I started doing it. Ha.

    Liked by 2 people

    April 16, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    • Typically journal reviewers will have similar skill sets, but since biomimicry is such a small subset of the mechanical engineering field I wouldn’t be surprised if none of them had direct experience with it.

      I know my masters defense was very similar, one of my committee members actually asked why do it that way (mimic biology). It was an honest question, we don’t typically work from a starting point like that, so it is somewhat confusing for the traditional engineer.

      When I first started with the knee design I thought it would be easy too. I mean a single degree of freedom joint, how hard could it be? Turns out it’s the most complex joint in the body… oops. haha! Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m excited to see your progress though, I think you’re doing great from the photos you recently shared!

      Liked by 2 people

      April 17, 2022 at 12:26 pm

      • Aw, thank you.

        The most complex? Really? I will appreciate my knees more now.

        At any rate, nobody’s cruelty won out. You get the last word and you’ll see your paper published. I’m very happy for you.

        Liked by 2 people

        April 17, 2022 at 1:11 pm

      • You’re welcome!

        Yes, it looks simple, but the knee has 6 degrees of freedom and a changing center of rotation (giving you a longer moment arm when you’re squatting so you can produce more torque as you stand back up). It’s very hard to mimic, which is why typical prosthetics use very simplified (mostly pin joint) versions.

        Liked by 2 people

        April 17, 2022 at 6:15 pm

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