Rethinking experiences of peer review

A while back I posted a rant focused on my recent experiences of peer review. At the time, I was mad. I felt as though many of the recent reviews I had received were motivated primarily by self-interest, not scientific expertise. Some comments were completely irrelevant and didn’t relate at all to the paper being scrutinised. Other comments were downright mean.

More recently, I had a paper rejected by the journal Environmental Research Letters. When the paper was under review for much longer than the publicised rapid review timeframe, my co-author and I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. Our mildly nagging follow-up emails were gently dismissed and were eventually replaced by vague comments about a decision pending from the editorial board.

Eventually we got an email with an outright rejection. The second reviewer had used a traditional style, giving a brief summary of the paper and conclusions, followed by major comments and then some technical comments. Reviewer 2 recommended major revisions. The first reviewer gave the briefest review I’ve seen. She/he forewent the usual summary and gave just a few points that seemed to indicate that he/she hadn’t read the manuscript. Reviewer 1 recommended an outright rejection.

An anonymous editor sided with Reviewer 1.  He/she went on to liken our study to “beating a dead horse”.

It was all a bit crushing. I had been confident in this paper. Although Reviewer 2 made some really valuable points about some important analyses we have overlooked, I genuinely felt that it was an the whole more novel and insightful than most of my work of the previous years. I was angry at the lazy reviews, the unnecessarily violent imagery of the editor and their mask of anonymity.

I sent an email to the sub-editor saying I had found the whole process to be wholly disrespectful of my work, unprofessional and that I wouldn’t be submitting to that journal again. And that was that, at least for now.

It’s easy to get worn down by the peer review process. Positive feedback is exceptionally rare. More typically, feedback is negative, harsh or mean. Furthermore, I often feel a publication in its final format reads like a cobbled together mess, motivated by reviewer comments made on a whim and implemented in order to appease an editor.

I haven’t made a secret of finding our current approach to peer review limiting. But regardless of my frustrations at both the process and its outcomes, peer review is a core part of academic work, and accepting it as such means dealing with the ups and down.

I’m trying to be more resilient to the harshness of peer review. Here’s a few thought to help me try to build up a thicker skin:

Like water off a duck’s back –

It’s tough be criticised, particularly when you are criticised publicly but anonymously. It’s tough to have your work disrespected. It’s tough to see your writing degraded, or analyses weakened, by pandering to reviews. But that’s the process, so sometimes you just have to swallow it and be tough.

Give yourself some time –

Put nasty reviews aside for a while, and drag them out when you can face them. If necessary repeat this process until you can start to nibble away at the comments. Don’t feel time pressure, even if the journal imposes one. Ask for an extension, or two, or three.

Be a better reviewer –

Provide detailed reasons for suggestions, be precise about what you expect and what you are merely suggesting, and be clear with the editor about your motivations as a reviewer.

Stick up for your work –

If you feel like a comment, or indeed the bulk of a reviewer’s report is misplaced, unfair or inappropriate, then say so. Argue back confidently, citing relevant literature. It’s ok to say no. Reviewers are human, they don’t know everything and they aren’t always kindly motivated. Use your eloquence and persuasion to give the editor options on how to proceed.

Remember, it’s got your name on it –

At times even a rejection seems preferable to three long and discordant reviewer reports. I’ve had several papers become almost unreadable after trying to implement too many people’s ideas on the structure of a single sentence. When a paper is eventually published, it has your name on it, and in academia, you are your name. You have to be able to stand by a paper and feel that it belongs in your contribution to the field. If a paper goes most of the way through peer review and ends up sitting uncomfortably with you, don’t be afraid to walk away before it’s published.

The power is yours –

Science chooses to use peer review to distinguish our knowledge from the claims of non-scientists. Authors, reviewers and editors are all responsible for the implementation of that process. If you don’t feel like it is working well, you are always empowered to improve it. Be a better author, be a better reviewer and demand more of your editors.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking experiences of peer review

  1. Hey Soph thanks for sharing! Sorry to hear about the nasty rejection 😦 Hope you had some chocolate nearby! You’re right, it is so tough being criticised, especially when you have worked so hard on a paper, from the idea all the way to finalising the figures. I also agree that anonymity allows some people to be unnecessarily cruel. That could be something to address as reviewers ourselves: don’t review a paper unless you’re prepared to put your name to the review. But I was thinking the other day about how much sadder it would be if there was no peer review. I know a researcher who always publishes in low ranking journals, where the review process is not very strict. This means that their theories never get a real challenge, and their ideas never get tested to any serious extent by their peers. Looking at it that way made me a lot more grateful for the 6 page revisions I have received.

    • There was most certainly wine that night! I agree that ‘good’ reviews are an absolute privilege, and especially those that are fairly critical. I just think we can do a bit better! And great idea to put a name to a review, I will add this to my list of how to deal better with the whole process.

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