Monday, February 8, 2010

What's an "Opinion" in journal reviews?

Some journals have subcategories of reviews that include labels like "opinion" or "perspective". For example, our 2007 paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Hickok, G., & Poeppel, D. (2007). The cortical organization of speech processing Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8 (5), 393-402 DOI: 10.1038/nrn2113) appeared in the "Perspectives" section, not the "Reviews" section, and was further branded with the dreaded label, OPINION. I find it amusing how some folks use this in their citation of our work: "Hickok, G., & Poeppel, D. (2007) Opinion - The cortical organization...." Is this because they think it is part of the title? Or an attempt to cast doubt on the ideas expressed?

More to the point, what IS an opinion in a review article? Or even more to the point, what ISN'T an opinion? Unless a review article limits itself to a list of observations of the form, "BOLD signal increases at x,y,z coordinate during the presentation of x compared to the presentation of y" or "the time it took subjects to push the button corresponding to the '/ba/' response button was longer with the TMS coil ON compared to when it was off", it is an "opinion". Put differently, unless a review is just a recapitulation of the Results sections of a set of papers, the review is the opinion (interpretation) of the authors. To the extent that an interpretation represents a theoretical explanation of the observations and therefore hypotheses that can be tested, etc., "opinions" are what we should be striving for in scientific inquiry. So why single out some review articles as being "Opinion" while others qualify as "Reviews"?

The answer is that they don't really mean "opinion" because every review, indeed every discussion section, is opinion. What they really mean is "controversial" or "non-conventional" -- ideas that shake things up a bit. I think these kinds of reviews are the most interesting and more likely to have an influence on subsequent research.

So although I think labeling some reviews as "Opinion" is a silly, even unscientific, thing to do, as long as they are doing it, I would take it as a compliment.

But that's just my opinion.


David Williams said...

Interesting. I’m a biologist. I’ve just finished with a set of proofs of mine for an Opinion section of a journal. We, my co-author and I, of course, believe our commentary to be ‘true’ not opinion.

‘What they really mean is "controversial" or "non-conventional"’.

Indeed. We were not sure if we were proud to be an Opinion or depressed. I read your post. Now I’m proud. Progress. At last.

Anonymous said...

I assume the label refers to the presence or absence of peer-review, which in turn implies a distinction between consensus opinion and personal opinion.

Greg Hickok said...

No that is not true. "Opinion" pieces are also peer reviewed.