In 2020 I have decided to try to refine my reviews. The impetus for this is that I think I have greater clarity about what my role should be or more correctly what my role is not.
My wife once had an internship at a publishing company. Her job was to go through the bin of unsolicited submissions and be ruthless. The company could only publish a set number of books a year, and they solicited most of the books they published. Thus her role was to reject almost all submissions. I think many reviewers think they have this job too. Many reviewers also believe they are the defender of the purity of science. This is a role I used to play. I believed that my field was a disaster and only I could fix it by standing in the way of as many articles as I could. My aim was to expunge the various sins I saw my field committing. What hubris!
I no longer believe that is my role. Ultimately, I think the role of a reviewer is a) to detect fatal flaws (a flaw that no amount of revision would fix); b) to identify any fundamental issue that should prevent publishing of any type (e.g., plagiarism, etc.); and c) determine if the article would look out-of-place among other articles in the field.
Ultimately, the role of a reviewer is to catch malfeasance and monsters.
The role of determining the place of an articles position as important or impactful or paradigm shifting is held by readers.
With this refined sense of what a reviewer should be, I have aimed to introduce the following to my own reviews:
- My review distribution will become increasingly bi-modal focused on either outright rejection or acceptance/ minor conditional acceptance.
- When I reject, my reviews are short. I outline what I think the fatal flaw was and nothing more. If an article is unsalvageable, advising on how certain paragraphs should be phrased or how APA styling should have be handled is a waste of time and confusing to the authors. The language here should be clear. There is no “I think the authors should consider…” or “Have the authors thought of…”. I am also clear in the first sentence that I do not think the article should be accepted and that I do not believe a revision could resolve the fundamental flaws I see in the paper.
- If I give a recommendation of conditional acceptance, I am careful of distinguishing between the few things upon which I believe are the conditions of acceptance and areas I think might improve the article. I am clear that the latter are suggestions and the authors are free to ignore them. I then try to phrase these points as questions rather than commands.
- If an author refuses to adjust their article in relation to something I think they should adjust, and they give reasons that are not preposterous, I let it go. You have likely received a review from me if you read “I don’t agree with the authors’ position on this issue, but my job is not to make authors write the paper how I want it written. I suggest the paper move forward to publication.”
There was a great blog post this week from Sara Chipps of stack overflow. She discussed the ‘pile on’ effect. The phenomena where the collective (even when constructive) criticism from many people can be crushing. I see the same thing in the review process. There are arsehole reviewers out there. But my experience has been more of the soul crushing effect of 3-5 reviews—all from reviewers that mean well and have good things to say.
It is this pile on effect that I think is so destructive for early career and doctoral researchers. This has always been the case. Many of us survived this and have the battle scars to prove it. But I think the pile on effect is even more dangerous now because of the pressure there is to publish and publish in good journals. No top 10 percentile journal articles on your CV often means no chance at a meaningful and secure career in academia. So what to do?
Individually there are some things we could all do:
- Don’t be an arsehole reviewer.
- If you see something, say something. If you review a paper and you see arsehole behaviour from other reviewers, let the editor know that it is not OK.
- If you are a new reviewer chances are you will be an arsehole; at least in your first few reviews. Get feedback from experienced researchers. Specifically get feedback on how to write constructive reviews.
- What little training in reviewing we receive encourages us to give people a shit sandwich. Generic nice first sentence, destruction, patronizing ‘good effort’ closing sentence. This is transparent. Better to spend time to find something that you genuinely learnt from the paper. Even in awful papers there is generally an interesting idea, a nice way of visualizing data, or nice turn of phrase. Point this out. Genuine compliments are best.
- When your ECRs experience arsehole reviewer behaviour don’t just comfort them by saying ‘we have all been there’. Let them know that the reviewers behaviour is unacceptable. ECRs will become reviewers and they need to know what behaviour is and is not OK.
I think these are all reasonable points but it does not get around the pile on effect. For that I think there needs to be a structural change. We can do a much better job at making our field more welcoming to newcomers. This might include:
- Wrap around support for early career and doctoral researchers (ECRs). Supervisors should be ready to support their people, editors should be made aware when a paper is from an ECR and curate feedback from reviewers more aggressively (i.e., edit out the mean bull shit that many reviewers for some bizarre reason think is ok to write).
- Reviewers could be told that a paper is from an ECR as a nudge to be nicer. I am not suggesting ECRs get a free ride. The same standards should apply to all. But we could be more welcoming.
- I have reviewed some 200ish articles. I have not once received feedback from a journal about my reviews. I KNOW I was an arsehole when I first started. No one bothered to tell me. The lack of feedback from journals to reviewers is unforgiveable.
- Post graduate training should include training courses on how to review and what the review process will be like.
While I think acting on these suggestions would make things better, it won’t completely fix the feeling of being ganged up on. To this I would only say to my ECR friends, I am truly sorry.