The title of this post is from an old-ish movie; one I saw way too many times when I was a grad student..
An editor of a journal in my general field was recently lamenting how rude and 'unconstructive' reviews were becoming, including ones with ad hominem attacks on the author(s). It doesn't surprise me that this happens - it's happened to me and all of my colleagues with whom I've discussed this topic - but what surprises me is how frequent it is in this particular journal. The editor said that most reviews were in some way 'unconstructive'. For a journal I'm involved with, this type of review is very rare (definitely <5% overall; last year, <1%). I wouldn't think there would be such a drastic difference within 2 subfields of the same general discipline. There is some overlap between the 2 subfields, quite a number of us publish papers in both, and therefore the reviewer pool has some overlap as well.
My journal has a higher impact factor than this other journal, but publishes fewer papers/year. The other editor handles more manuscripts and reviews than I do, but even so, that disparity doesn't account for the difference between 'most' and 'essentially none' in terms of rude reviews. I also don't think there is a big disparity in NSF funding rates for the two subfields, though the other field does tend to involve larger labs with more personnel and equipment.
It would be interesting to collect data on the 'tone' of reviews by journal, though of course the designation of a review as constructive vs. unconstructive is in some cases subjective. In some cases the appropriate designation is obvious. In the worst case I dealt with, it was unambiguous. I contacted the reviewer and asked if he really wanted me to transmit his review to the author, noting that he (the reviewer) had made some important points amongst his insults, but these points might be lost given the rest of what he wrote. The reviewer said he already regretted sending the review without taking out the insults, and asked for a chance to rewrite it. He did, the author took his constructive comments seriously and improved the paper greatly, and it was published. Happy ending.. that time.
I have been really annoyed, angered, and/or disgusted by manuscripts I reviewed, and sometimes my first draft of a review is really not nice at all. In those cases I always sit on the review for a few days, calm down, rewrite, and send off something polite, however negative overall. Most of my colleagues do the same, but I guess some people don't.
We definitely don't have to be mean.
9 months ago