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Peer-Reviewed Journals

Peer-reviewed journals may serve academics but I would suggest that if they are to be relevant to the world that applies the findings, something needs to change.

Generally, this mass that sits between my ears works pretty well. There have been times when I’ve carried a question for years and then one day an idea pops up, a possible path to resolution and understanding. I assume that in carrying the question my mind has unconsciously been collecting data leading to that Eureka moment. There are a couple of situations though where I can clearly see the obstacles but after many years of carrying the question no path to resolution has emerged – nothing, nada, zip. I’ve written about one of these before. It’s that under our electric utility regulatory process, while regulators want to see improvement in reliability, if utilities wish to be reimbursed for improvement expenditures they have to prove that events that did not occur did not happen precisely because of those expenditures. I experience the cognitive dissonance in my head but I can’t think of a process that’s better than what we have.

The second one has to do with peer-reviewed journals. Clearly the intent of the peer review process is to ensure that information that is being disseminated is scientifically sound and valid. But there are some serious issues with this process. First, it is assumed that the reviewers are capable of understanding the experimental design, the statistical procedures used and assessing the validity of the conclusions. Secondly, it is and should be assumed that this process is free of and will not be swayed by the personal beliefs and opinions of the reviewers. One would also think that the reviewers are subject matter experts capable of assessing the importance of the subject matter, hypothesis and conclusions. Were this true, the reviewer would for a potentially substantial advancement not only identify current shortcomings in the paper before him but also support ultimate publication by recommending the means of addressing such shortcomings.

Let’s look at utility arboriculture or utility vegetation management. There are two primary peer reviewed journals that support the work of arborist and utility electrical engineers the Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry and IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery. The reviewers for the Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry are knowledgeable in arboriculture but know very little about the electric utility industry. The reviewers for IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery are engineers who generally have little to no knowledge about trees (apologies to Lee Taylor and Pete Dominguez). Unfortunately, this separation has consequences.

The Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry rejected a paper Priority Trimming to Improve Reliability, which reported on seminal work done by BG&E on how trees cause electrical faults. This paper was the foundation of subsequent research, none of which was published in peer reviewed journals. Over my forty years in the utility VM business this topic represents what I consider one of the greatest changes in understanding in our industry and peer reviewed journals completely missed it.

Does personal opinion of the reviewer enter into the decision to recommend for publication? I’m sorry to say it does. Let me give you two examples from my experience. I submitted a paper Effects of Tree Mortality on Power Line Security to the Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry. The point of the paper was that based on forest stand data, we in the electric utility business were grossly underestimating the risk and the volume of work generated by natural tree mortality. After numerous challenges and hurdles this paper was finally approved for publication only because the editor overruled the reviewer who did not want to see the paper published because, in his opinion, it would lead to utilities recklessly tree-freeing every right of way. I submitted Increased Risk of Electric Service Interruption Associated with Tree Branches Overhanging Conductors to IEEE Transactions on Power Delivery. At the time of submission, I had been in the industry for about 30 years, yet one reviewer quipped that what was being presented in the paper was commonly known by utility foresters. I withdrew the paper and today I don’t know of any utility that has a quantitative means of determining the increase in risk of a line contact on tree failure as a consequence of branches overhanging conductors.

The Increased Risk of Electric Service Interruption Associated with Tree Branches Overhanging Conductors was also rejected by the Journal of Arboriculture & Urban Forestry. One of the reasons was that the references used did not refer to any similar work. There wasn’t any. Consequently I used media articles regarding the impact of various ice storms that caused multi-day outages to establish the importance of this to both electric utilities and to the public in general. Such citations were deemed inappropriate.

Peer-reviewed journals are not for disseminating new ideas but only to incrementally add to what is already known. Peer-reviewed journals may serve academics but I would suggest that if they are to be relevant to the world that applies the findings, something needs to change.

I read recently that Einstein never submitted work to peer-reviewed journals. Do you wonder, as I do, what would have happened if he had?

If you have a resolution to either of these quandaries, there’s a comment box below. Be kind. Stop my suffering.

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