the cruel reviewer

It’s funny how the bad stuff sticks with you.

I was thinking about this last week as I was giving feedback after a viva and hoping that the candidate was hearing all the good things and not just the small corrections we wanted her to do. But I wasn’t confident that she would remember what we said were the clear and evident strengths of the work. I feared she would go away thinking only about the things that needed a bit more attention.

Now I know that the argument is that our brains are set up to remember traumas because it’s part of the way we survive, but does this really extend to criticism, as well as to massively dreadful events? Well, I gather it does, and the rationale seems to be that it helps us learn. It seems that negative events are necessary and we use them to avoid making the same mistakes again. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, it can be something as apparently positive as constructively worded critical feedback.

While I was thinking about this I saw a twitter conversation about bad reviews. Here’s how it went – and this is quoted with permission from @SDMumford, a colleague and Philosophy Prof at Nottingham.

Read old rejection letter from 1996. Referee could just’ve said no without instead arguing I was a cretin with no clue about dispositions.
Referee’s comments were cruel and venomous as if he wanted me to give up philosophy for good. Clear message that I was an imbecile.
He gave his name quite proudly. I was a nobody.
I know exactly who it was as he didn’t hide his name. Glad I didn’t give up.
Maybe the paper wasn’t great (even though it became a central part of my Dispositions book)
Insecurity on referee’s part?
If I referee a paper I think poor, I say that it needs more thought and you should consider this and that. I don’t say you are a moron.
I had a gem of a rejection not too long ago in which the referee alleged I could barely write English.

Now pretty well all of us can immediately understand what @SDMumford is getting at. The vast majority of us have had articles rejected, and even with the best will in the world and the most careful wording, rejection is one of those negative experiences that sticks with you. And most of us do learn from the experience.

Unless of course you’re a slow learner like me. Confession time. I’ve just been asked to do major corrections on a paper and I have to say that I feel a bit stupid right now, because the problems the reviewers identified are ones that I teach other people to avoid… if I had taken more time over the paper and not rushed at it I would have realised its deficiencies myself. The reviews were OK – the negativity of the experience is simply because I’m very cross with myself. I actually know that it takes time for me to do a piece of theoretical work and any time I try to go too fast the work is always deficient. The problem in this case was that I just didn’t remember what I know about what I have to do to write a good paper and the reviewers found me out.

But it seems that rather a lot of us have had a review which wasn’t just negative, it was just downright rude. As a journal editor I occasionally see some quite awful reviewer responses which never get sent out to authors. One I can remember said simply “This is what gives academics a bad name”.

I’m cheered by the fact that the material that @SDMumford was castigated about did live on. It’s not the first time I’ve heard about people going on from a rejection to write something significant. In the acknowledgements to his book on policy narratives Hugh Miller begins by saying

This project began as an article manuscript that (name of journal and editor) urged me to revise and resubmit in response to anonymous reviewers’ comments. I gave it a try. Problem was, by the time I responded to the issues raised in the reviews, the manuscript had expanded to 50 pages. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions that helped get this book underway. (p. vii)

So there really is a reason to see rejection as leading somewhere, even if not to an immediate publication. A well worded and thoughtful review can be a positive as well as a negative experience. It can work to help us learn what to do next – even if like me, you occasionally forget to remember what it is you already have learned that you have to do.

However, there’s absolutely no excuse for poor reviewer behaviour. You don’t have to be rude, arrogant or vitriolic in order to reject a colleague’s work or to help them learn. Just the rejection is negative impact enough on its own.

Oh – and I’ve been fantasizing about a wall of shame of bad reviews. @SDMumford might start us off with his 1996 review, but I really need more examples. Have you had not just a negative, but actually a downright genuinely dreadfully nasty horrible traumatising review you need to get off your chest? I could start a bit of a virtual exhibition if I had enough samples!!

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in feedback, journal, rejection, revision and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to the cruel reviewer

  1. I really enjoy this post, Pat. Funny that I read it while refereeing a paper! I am not going to reject the paper and will politely indicate where it can be improved.

    Recently, however, I happened to reject two other papers I had been asked to referee. But I guess I fall at the other extreme of the spectrum than the one you are referring to. Rather than having a go at the Authors as in the examples you have recounted, I genuinely feel dreadful when rejecting a paper. I agonise over my decision for days until I realise I must send off my report or I’ll be late. The point is I often feel for the Authors and just hope that they will not take it personally. Does this happen to other Reviewers?

    Anyway, I once stumbled upon a great reply to the Editors from a frustrated Author. I wrote a post on my blog and it can be found here: http://wp.me/p1YSjr-g2
    It’s funny to the point of laughing with tears! :)

  2. On the other hand, we have all also given bad reviews. I recently thought it necessary to give a bad review to a major grant application, which had some good intentions and a good proposition at its heart, but in the end I just couldn’t ask taxpayers (of another country) to fund an ill conceived and trivial piece of research. The process of rejecting the work of someone else so comprehensively has haunted me as I thought of the time the applicant had invested in the application, their hopes for their career and the others included in the research plan, and so on. I hope that I sweetened the bitter pill by supporting my criticism with references and substantial notes, and making as many suggestions as possible for how to make it more viable and relevant and suggesting that it be revised and resubmitted. It took bloody ages!! I took some comfort in the thought that the peer review process was worth treating with integrity, for the greater good of knowledge ( blah, blah, blah!).

  3. Here’s another brick for your wall of shame: http://cppeblog.org/?p=516

  4. Hi Pat, good blog. The worst comment I ever received was for a paper that I wrote about three years ago. It went, “I learnt absolutely nothing from this paper” and so the reviewer went on to let me know just how hopeless the paper was. It’s now published in an international journal.

  5. John Finn says:

    Great post.
    I always try to play the ball (not the player) when reviewing. A tough and critical review can still be professional and personally respectful.
    I have my own experience to contribute to the wall of shame. With hindsight it was a manuscript that should have been submitted in better condition, but did the reviewer really have to begin with “I can’t believe that these people claim to be ecologists…”?!

  6. jwbaker says:

    Reviewer 1: ‘Very well written and presented’
    Reviewer 2: ‘The English definitely needs to be proofread as some parts are not clear, it also contains repetitions, mistakes and typos. Punctuation also needs to be looked at – sentences are sometimes long and convoluted and could do with some more commas.’

    Though there was the odd typo, but the rest was a matter or style and preference. Classic case of a reviewer suffering from road rage syndrome.

  7. jwbaker says:

    *’of style and preference’

  8. P N says:

    However you should also remember that it is the reviewers’ responsibility to save the research community from having to read bad papers. But telling that a paper is really bad does not necessarily need to involve telling that the researcher is a bad researcher. Nevertheless the researcher and his/her works are of course tightly connected!

    Remember that the reviewer does the work without pay and without really getting any “creds”. The reviewer may sometimes even spend a couple of workdays for the reviewing process and sometimes when I have sent a well-worked review to the editor, the next paper revision I get from the researcher is another piece of quickly-fixed bad work. Then it is my responsibility to tell the researcher to wake up!

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  13. Tim Vines says:

    Authors should never receive ad hominem attacks in their reviews, and if they do it’s largely because the editorial office (or whoever is in charge of sending decisions) hasn’t screened the letter thoroughly before sending. If a reviewer is being rude, it’s generally quite effective for the editor or editorial office to edit that part of their comments and ask the reviewer to approve the new version – the author doesn’t receive the abuse, and the reviewer gets the message that they’ve crossed the line.

  14. cantaloupe says:

    “The author needs to spend another year or two…” on the mss for my first book. Yep, this was the first sentence. Less than ten words in and I felt like I’d been disemboweled. I never could bring myself to read the rest, but it’s there somewhere, haunting the dankest cellar of my inbox like the Vengeful Ghost of Impostor Syndrome Past.

    Anonymity can really bring out the worst in people. I understand that to succeed in this profession, one needs to develop a thick skin (like, rhinoceros thick). Still, in many office environments, the kind of “rigorous” critique we’re discussing here could easily be considered bullying and lead to disciplinary action or dismissal.

    That said, it has been my experience that these kinds of reviews are the exception rather than the rule. I’ve had many more r+r’s that were clearly very thoughtful and considered, and truly helped to make the work better in the long run.

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