Monday, July 09, 2007

Grad students are (typically) people too

In the not-so-distant past, I wrote about a hostile reviewer who afflicted one of my students with anonymous rude comments that, without basis, called into question the ethics, intelligence, and writing ability of the student and his co-authors (including me). We revised the manuscript and resubmitted it with a strongly worded rebuttal letter.

In this case, "strongly worded" refers to the fact that the rebuttal letter clearly stated where we disagreed with the hostile reviewer, but at no point did we descend to his level of being hostile or rude.

Today this formerly anonymous reviewer identified himself to me and one other senior co-author in an email message. He did not include the Ph.D. student in the email, although the student is first author on the manuscript. This reviewer had seen the rebuttal letter and revised manuscript, and although he admitted that the revised manuscript was good and should be published, he was incensed by the rebuttal letter. He wrote that he "did not appreciate" the fact that the letter essentially accused him of being critical of our research (!).

It takes no imagination or inference to think that someone who writes in a review that the results/interpretations are "nonsense" and includes many pages of hostile comments is critical of the work.

I think it is at the same time bizarre and strangely understandable that this person's delicate feelings were hurt by our rebuttal letter, which refuted some of his more serious criticisms. I think that an apology by this reviewer to the student would have been in order, but instead the reviewer wrote to the Professors who are co-authors, saying that, although he respects our distinguished professorial selves, he has grave doubts about the integrity of the student author. It is a cheap shot to convert a scientific disagreement into doubt about someone's integrity, exploiting that person's lack of power.

Perhaps more disturbing than the reviewer's aggression and over-sensitivity is his lack of respect for the student. Why didn't the reviewer write directly to the student? Do we really have to wait until the degree is printed and framed before treating a student like a professional colleague? I think the very act of writing and submitting a manuscript should be a strong signal that the author is a serious scientist who is responsible for the content of the paper. There are exceptions to this (e.g., when the first author is not the communicating author listed as the main contact), but the default assumption, unless one is informed otherwise, should be that the communicating author on a manuscript is capable of discussions regarding the content of the manuscript, even if he/she is still a student.


Jamy said...

Professors who don't think of grad students as people are fairly common. My first adviser was one of them. I had the distinct impression that until I actually defended my dissertation she thought I was stupid. I'd changed advisers by then, but she was still on the committee. When we sat in the room for the final defense, I fully expected her to attack and criticize, but much to my delight she only had one good comment and compliments (!) for my work. Getting to that point meant a lot to her, though no one else seemed to doubt that I could do it.

Your guy seems a good bit crazier than she was, though. Resorting to ad hominem attacks is childish--not surprising that his response to your response was also childish.

Mr. B. said...

I'd certainly make sure that the editor of the journal in question was made aware of this email.


As to the disrespect shown to your student, this may very well be a personality trait of this person. You know - the type who will be rude and abusive as long as the person being treated is in no position to do them any damage. But ah the, oh let's be rude, asskissing that goes on if the other person is perceived to be powerful.

alh said...

It's nice to see a professor think of students as people. I'm often reminding the grad students in my department that they should be treated like people and shouldn't tolerate it when they're not. Sometimes I seriously wonder about the long term consequences to the science when we seem to be training graduate students to doubt their every move!

Doctor Pion said...

I have to wonder if that reviewer is of a similar nationality as the person in your "I am my husband" story, although I have seen that kind of behavior from Americans (of any age group). In my experience, that would be a person with mediocre physics skills who uses bluster to convey an undeserved sense of importance. Right now he is extremely concerned that you (as a reviewer) and the journal editor have discovered his deficiencies.

And congrats on composing the response so that every matter of fact statement was as sharp as a dagger. That takes skill, but can also be great fun. Be sure your student realizes that writing a response letter is an important professional skill.

Scott Scofield said...


Superior Blog!! I'm a senior at the University of Wisconsin, Philosophy - History dual major. I retired from the military in 2004 (26-year career) and decided to start the process to become a professor - currently assessing doctoral programs.

In moments of weakness, due to my age most likely, my professors will occasionally vent their 'institutional' frustrations to me. These instances have certainly 'humanized' them for me. It's reassuring to see your approach from behind the lectern - so to speak.

Again, outstanding blog - thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, academia has a disproportionate number of intelligent people who nevertheless seriously lack social skills, not just in person but in writing. Responding to this person is relatively pointless, except maybe to bring to their attention that your ire was not the criticisms but the manner in which they were made.

I have found that these same people are often quite timid in person if talked to at a conference -- email often makes people act differently behind the "lack of face", and it affects how people are treated.

If anything, chalk it up to a lesson for your student. I had a student with a similar experience. She was intimidated by some email comments (not even reviews, but requests for info on some published work that was a bit vague in places). After meeting the indivdidual in person at a conference when he came by her poster, she became convinced that she knew her topic better than he did!

gs said...

I think the very act of writing and submitting a manuscript should be a strong signal that the author is a serious scientist who is responsible for the content of the paper.

Indeed. The reviewer's nastiness is probably common knowledge, so hopefully your student hasn't chanced on a career-damaging enemy.

IMO an academic degree certifies that the student has demonstrated certain skills and knowledge. The skills and knowledge should be the important thing, not the certificate. The reviewer seems to have this backwards. His attitude is wrongheaded at best and likely worse.

(Hindsight tells me that I wasn't a research scientist until halfway through my second postdoc. Not that my PhD was illegitimate: it represented something like completing a wilderness trek with the support of a monitor. Performing such treks autonomously and regularly was the next level.)

Anonymous said...

Did you forward the email on to the student? That seems to me to be the appropriate thing to do, along with offering a bit of further advice in terms of what a appropriate response (or lack thereof) might be.

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, I showed the email to the student, and we discussed possible responses.