Monday, February 26, 2007

Don't Be Mean. We Don't Have To Be Mean

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.


iGollum said...

I reviewed a paper for the first time a couple of months ago (for a rather small journal), and I must admit that the first draft of my review was rather scathing. But I realized I couldn't very well send it in like that, took a couple of days to cool off and rewrote it in a neutral tone, with more constructive suggestions and less, uh, adverbs. I'm really glad I did, if only for my self-esteem. I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who writes unconstructive, insulting reviews.

Interestingly, when I saw the other two reviewer reports, one was very short with extremely enthusiastic compliments (imagine my surprise) and the other was pretty much the same as mine.

skookumchick said...

I was invited to write a book review for a journal - I had accepted before I knew how bad the book was. My first review was bland because I didn't want to say anything bad; the editors were upset because I did not answer their questions about the book. I wrote a second review around their questions, which the book did not answer, and review overall has taken on a much tougher tone, but I hope not a mean or insulting one. I haven't heard back from them again, yet... but I keep waiting.

Anonymous said...

The first review I wrote was a "hand-me-down" review from my PhD advisor. After he read my review, he sat me down and chastened me about how rude it was. He later showed me *his* review of the same paper. I was absolutely astonished by how rude and insulting it was!!

Ten years--and many reviews performed and received-- later...I am a firm believer in the "golden rule" approach to reviewing. I pretend that I am reviewing my own paper, or a paper of a close friend/colleague, and I try to give constructive and useful comments.

The other technique I use is to try to sign my name on most reviews. That helps ensure that I do a fair, well-thought-out review.

I love the opportunity to see others' reviews of a same paper I reviewed. Recently I saw that my review was exactly in the middle of a set of three reviews. One was just a short acknowledgement, with no constructive comments; the other was a long, brutal & insulting tirade. Mine was intermediate in length, and raised the same issues as the brutal review, but in a more pleasant (I thought) way.

Ms.PhD said...

Really wish more editors would do what you did. Instead I think we're expected to just tolerate this behavior and allow it to continue to escalate.

Agreed on the golden rule, that is what I try to do, too. Although, the last paper I reviewed needed so much help, I worried that if I signed my name, they would be calling me day and night asking for everything from protocols to reagents to editing the manuscript. Ack! I don't have time for that and I'm never sure what to make of that, when I'm asked to review a paper that's barely half a small publication's worth of work.

re: seeing other reviews, I think that's totally inappropriate. Reviews are supposed to be independent, are they not??

Anonymous said...

No no, I am an editor at a general science journal, and we send the reviews to all three referees after we make the decision and notify the authors. It's great to see what the others wrote and our referees tell us they find it very helpful. We also sometimes send a review we think might be out of line to one of the other referees to get a calibration on it, and we may not pass on those that are not useful. So, at least some professional editors are looking out for you!