A case of the Dorian Grays

Artwork by Wombo Art.

What makes dealing with peer review so difficult is that it forces us to confront the worst conception of ourselves.

We all have a certain view of ourselves. We might like to think that we do good work, for instance; that we’re intelligent, that we’re diligent, that we’re respected. We like to think that we have value, that we are valued.

But we all have a second portrait locked away in our mental attic. Sometimes tucked away and hidden so deeply that we forget it’s there. It’s the one painted by the doubt, by the fear, by the imposter syndrome, by all manner of insecurities that gnaw away at the back of our minds.

Like Dorian Gray, we keep that portrait out of sight. Peer review makes us confront it. Peer review is when you’re forced to look at your worst side, at the worst conception of yourself.

I am afraid this is not a competitive grant. The candidate had a relatively weak track record and I suspect he was given the benefit of the doubt. However, little progress has been made.

This is what makes handling peer review so difficult, because regardless of whether or not you strip away the emotion – and that in itself is extremely hard and takes time to learn – you still have to look at the portrait that’s been painted. You can scream at it, you can curse at it, you can grit your teeth and control your features and force yourself to look at it, but in order to reply to the criticism you cannot avoid it.

Given the work done by others in this field I am afraid it looks as if this applicant has been rather left behind.

And it hurts. It hurts every single time. It repulses us because it’s recognisable. It’s us. It’s not how we see ourselves, but how someone – some anonymous pen – has chosen to see us. It’s some warped and nightmarish portrait, but it’s recognisable. Just.

The applicant does not have a strong publication record.

And you worry that it’s not a portrait, not some vindictive caricature, but a mirror.

It would be hard to consider this significant progress on the last grant or a strong CV for an independent or even pre-independent scientist.

And we all get it. No matter how successful or unsuccessful we are. No matter what kind of reputation we enjoy. We’re always at risk of being forcibly marched up the stairs and into the attic and made to pull back the curtain hiding the canvas. Because you can always paint a monster. You can always find fault. You can always find something to criticise. You can turn anyone into a ghoul, a slob, a sloth, a fool. An aberration in the scientific community. A waste of space. A waste of money.

This is not a strong history of innovation.

But we have to deal with it. Like Dorian Gray, we have to keep going up into the secret attic and confronting it. It is a kind of conscience. A reminder. A counterweight. It hurts us, it revolts us, but it reminds us that in others’ eyes – when the lights are low and the knives are out and we’re alone and vulnerable and prey to our worst fears – we’re never as good as we would like to think we are. Or that no matter who we are, there will always be things about us that can be held up as grounds for rebuke.

I would have to place this application in the group below 50% of applications that I have reviewed. It would not be competitive in the international context.

We can laugh it off, claim it doesn’t mean anything, claim it was written in anger by someone who was having a bad day, a bad week, a bad year – but that’s no comfort in the middle of the night when we’re forced to reflect that someone, a peer, wrote all those words either knowing or not caring about the impact they would have.

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