About two weeks ago, I received an unsolicited email from Elsevier, the international science publishers, about my recent article in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity (JENR) on increased rates of childhood leukemias near nuclear power plants (NPPs).
It informed me that my article had been downloaded 482 times since its publication in March 2014. For people used to 100,000s of views of social media posts, this may sound like small beer, but in the specialist world on environmental radioactivity, it’s quite a statistic, even though it’s me saying so (smile). It means, apart from being a nice little earner for Elsevier at $36 per download, that a sizeable chunk of the scientists subscribing to JENR have read the article: indeed, in its own little niche, it could be said to have gone viral or partly viral.
Perhaps this is not unusual as the article is highly controversial: it provides an explanation for why about 40 studies around the world have found increases in childhood leukemias near nuclear power plants (NPPs). Another post will discuss the nitty gritty of the article: this post will discuss the making of it, as the tale is quite interesting.
The article was based on previous articles by me partly on the same theme, and had been commissioned by the organisers of a conference at a UK university in 2012. All went smoothly until my article came to be peer reviewed. 6 reviewers examined the article: 2 agreed, 2 opposed the article but said it could be published after amendment and 2 were hostile.
What followed next was extraordinary. One hostile reviewer initially sent 9 pages containing about 60 detailed objections: I replied to every point with 8 pages of answers. About 6 months later, the same reviewer sent another 7 pages of detailed criticisms: I replied with 6 pages of equally detailed rebuttals. The whole process took about a year to complete which is unusually long by most standards.
I informed some colleagues who expressed surprise and said this was an attempt to derail the article which amounted to an abuse of the peer review process. Perhaps, but some of the reviewer’s comments were valid and were taken on board: in fact, they served to make the article more watertight. I have purposely not stated the reviewer’s name as he’s a relatively good scientist and indeed I’ve cited his work in my article. It’s just that he’s a strong advocate of nuclear power.
Despite all this the article was published and I should like to pay tribute to the JENR editor who had a tough job refereeing the contest and had the courage to publish it when other editors would have chickened out.
It’s clear the article has attracted much interest, especially in the US where many of the downloads occurred. This may be because the US government’s National Research Council is about to commission a study into childhood leukemias near US NPPs.
As part of the editing process, the JENR editor made it clear that I would be expected to reply to letters to the editor pointing out errors or omissions. This is normal scientific practice and of course I agreed. There have been no such letters so far, according to the editor. I waited about four months after the report before posting this blog as I’d expected objections from scientists who are nuclear industry proponents, but none has appeared.