Last week I chatted with the editor of a science journal -- a different journal from the one for which I do some editing -- and we compared notes on the more vexing aspects of the job.
One thing we talked about was: Who are the most disgruntled people we deal with as editors?
The answer is not the most obvious one: the authors of rejected papers. No, the crankiest people -- or perhaps the people who hesitate least about sharing their anger -- are those who did a review, recommended rejection or major revisions, and then are angry when they see the paper published, or published without all of their suggested revisions accomplished.
This makes sense. Although some authors of rejected papers do indeed indicate their displeasure in a less than polite way, most do not, perhaps because they hope to publish in that same journal at some later date, or perhaps because they recognize the awesome wisdom of the Editor.
Reviewers, however, have performed a free service for a journal, and may have devoted quite a lot of time to a review. To have that review seemingly ignored can be infuriating. I have felt that way as a reviewer, though I can't imagine angrily confronting an editor about it.
My editor-colleague has experienced this angry jilted-reviewer situation a lot more than I have, and I was curious about that. He has been an editor longer than I have, and that may be the explanation. Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering whether he ignores or disagrees with reviewer recommendations more often than I do. To go against a substantive review and recommendation to reject by a reviewer, I need to be very sure that the reviewer criticisms are unfounded or excessively negative.
It is seldom the case that highly negative reviews are without basis, although it does occur. Some reviewers hate every manuscript they review (but nevertheless provide valuable comments, so editors continue to solicit their reviews); some reviewers are less objective than one ideally hopes a reviewer will be about particular topics; and in some cases a reviewer misunderstands a manuscript (e.g. owing to poor writing by the author or careless reading by the reviewer).
In some cases, one reviewer hates a manuscript but another thinks it is excellent and fascinating. In those situations, at least one of the reviewers is going to be annoyed no matter what the final decision is. That's not what matters, though. An editor has to take every substantive review seriously, read the ms and reviews carefully, and make a decision, possibly after seeking additional reviews.
I just looked at my editorial statistics for 2007, and my acceptance rate is in line with that of a peer group of editors. There may be some vexed reviewers (and authors) out there, but for the most part I think my little corner of the peer review ecosystem is functioning in a fair and efficient way.