Thursday, April 17, 2008

You Reviewed My Paper

Explanatory note: Although many manuscript reviews in my field are anonymous, in most cases I choose to add my name to reviews, so authors of the reviewed manuscripts know that I was a reviewer. There would be little reason to be anonymous anyway, as the nature of my comments and the style in which I write them identifies me in most cases.

When I am at a conference, I have come to dread the statement "You reviewed my paper." I don't dread it because I am a nasty reviewer and have created a trail of hostility and loathing owing to negative reviews. Even when my review is overall negative, I try to keep the comments constructive and polite. No, I dread it because I review a lot of papers and I edit a lot of papers, and my aging brain does not have a compartment from which I can readily access information about which papers I have reviewed over the years. When someone tells me that I reviewed their paper, sometimes I remember the paper and review, and sometimes I don't.

In some cases, I don't remember because the review was many years ago. Reviews may be memorable to an author, but after 3 (or 7 or 12) years, my memories of reviews I have done are typically faint to non-existent. Recently, people I was conversing with expected me to remember reviews I did in 2002 and 1995. These people did not initially provide me with information about the date or paper topic, but simply said "You reviewed my paper", and expected me to be able to discuss this.

If I can get away with making a vague and ambiguous sound in response to this statement, that's fine. Maybe the author is thanking me for my constructive and positive review? Maybe they want me to apologize for being so misguided as to think their results or interpretations were in error? Sometimes it is difficult to tell.

If the author wants to discuss an ancient review and paper, then I'm in trouble. I have to admit I don't remember, and one interpretation of my failure to remember is that I am arrogant or careless. Saying "I review so many papers.." isn't very effective because it implies that the reviewed paper was unmemorable, pedestrian, too boring to make a lasting impression.

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette now has a new entry. If you ever say to someone: "You reviewed my paper", assume that they might not remember this event as well as you do. Provide some supplementary information to help your former reviewer evaluate your statement; for example, ".. and I want to thank you for your useful comments." or ".. and I want you to know that the ignorance displayed by your review is truly staggering." [note: in FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette, it is permitted to tell someone that they display staggering ignorance, as long as this is said politely and in context.]

Information about the approximate review date and manuscript topic should also be provided if you wish to elicit anything more than a vague and ambiguous sound from your former reviewer. The following statement is therefore highly preferred over the vague "You reviewed my paper":

You reviewed my paper on Topic X in 1995, and I just wanted you to know that you were wrong to doubt my data and interpretations and I have recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for this work.

Once the context is clear, a more substantive, interesting, and lucid conversation can proceed, or not, depending on other factors (duration of conference, alcohol intake of conversants etc.).

18 comments:

stepwise girl said...

Thank you for FSP's guide to academic etiquette. When are you publishing it? I need a copy.

PhysioProf said...

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette now has a new entry. If you ever say to someone: "You reviewed my paper", assume that they might not remember this event as well as you do.

PhysioProf's Guide to Academic Etiquette has an entry that says, don't be a pathetic douchemonkey by hassling people about their prior peer review of your papers or grants. Nobody wants to talk about this shit, and it is just embarrassing. Have a little fucking self-control and keep your mouth shut.

Candid Engineer said...

I wish reviewers in my field would leave their names... not so I could harass them at conferences, though. :o)

James said...

How about something on the pros and cons of signing reviews? I haven't been able to make up my mind.

Anonymous said...

My rule is that I expect no one to remember anything at all about me. There are so many reasons why they might not, and no value to anyone on testing whether they do. But, physio, I disagree with potentially discussing a review -- if the person has signed their name. Of course, you don't say "you were wrong, all wrong." But, there might be room for further dialog.

It's not conventional to sign reviews in my field, and I wish it were. I wish I lived in the kind of field where one could have vigorous debate about ideas without people assuming bias. I have a sneaking suspicion that this problem arises more in fields that are less well defined. Maybe delusional on my part, but I imagine that if one submits a mathematical proof for review, you're either right or wrong. The job of the reviewer is to make sure you're right. If you're not right, they have to show how you're wrong. In fields where nothing is ever *right*, things are not so simple.

Jamy said...

Wait a sec--aren't these people in academia too? Don't they know all profs do tons of reviews? I think it's arrogance on their part to assume that you would remember them. You could say, "please refresh my memory, it's been a long time." But please! The only reason I'd approach someone in that context would be to thank them. I doubt I'd want to rehash a negative review!

As always, you go above and beyond.

Anonymous said...

I never sign my reviews. Anonymous reviewing is an important component of peer-review, even more important than anonymous blogging.

It allows young scientist to freely criticize senior professors without fear of retribution, it allows peers to criticize each other without causing hard feelings, and keeps things honest and above board.

If your reviews are so easily identified, then either you have a truly unique viewpoint on the field or you are not trying very hard. Recommend the author cite lots of papers written by someone else - that will throw them off the scent. And even if they guess right, it is not the same as telling them outright.

Signing reviews undermines the system of anonymous reviews and will lead to the collapse of Western Civilization. Don't do it.

PhysioProf said...

Regarding the question of signing reviews, I think it is ridiculous and counterproductive to do so. There is nothing to be gained, and no reason to violate the norm of anonymity. All it does is give authors distracting shit to think about that is irrelevant to their understanding of the review.

Female Science Professor said...

I disagree. I think it's fine if reviewers want to be anonymous, but in some cases it is quite constructive for an author to know a reviewer's identity. Also, as I noted, in many cases it is easy to figure out from my review comments who I am anyway, so I'd rather just be straightforward about it.

Anonymous said...

Two questions: 1) Is your viewpoint so idiosyncratic that your reviews cannot be anonymized?
2) Do you think that authors might misinterpret your attempt at transparency as being a power play? I can imagine receiving a negative signed review from certain top profs and thinking "Oh, I guess so-and-so has decided she owns this subfield." (Not that I would be right to think this.)

Gingerale said...

How about if you respond, "I'm so glad to meet you. Wasn't that a few months before you reviewed one of my papers? I'm pretty sure that was you wasn't it?" And then, after a pause, you could add, "And you know, those comments you made were so flattering. I really appreciated your recognition of my work."

I wonder if that would shut them up.

Hmm, what do you think -- would it be ethical to respond as I've suggested?

In my field, reviews are anonymous. I like them that way.

Anonymous said...

Do you also sign your reviews of grant applications?

James said...

I'm a pure mathematician, and I'm pretty sure it's the norm in my field to not sign reviews, or referee reports, as they're usually called. Even if there is no disagreement about whether everything is correct, there is still the issue of whether it's interesting. Then you might not want to have your friend and sometime collaborator know that you think their latest masterpiece is only so-so.

ecoeclipse said...

Great advice for reviewers and reviewees. On the notes about expecting to be remembered .... I thought I had fairly realistic expectations there, until 6 months after leaving a university, an old committee member couldn't remember my name in a chance meeting. I give him the benefit of the doubt as it was out of context; even so, from then on I've tried to recognize the need to identify yourself (or in this case, your paper) in detail! :)

mentaer said...

I had a couple of reviewer comments where I would really like to have known the reviewers. So I could have asked them about their comments since some have been not very clear to me. However, in my field I can also often guess who did review a paper.

BTW: I thought about signing too, but I felt uncomfortable with it, Because I did the review during my phd studies (althought that I would consider myself even at that time as expert in that particular topic -- for those who wonder: this review has been "approved" by my professor before sending it ;).

PhysioProf said...

I am convinced that authors are much worse at guessing who particular reviewers are than they think they are, and have foresworn trying to guess this shit anymore. Sometimes those you think are your friends rip your fucking throat out, and those you think are your enemies support your work.

Susan B. Anthony said...

The person who refereed my first article, a very well known and highly respected scientist, signed his name to the review. It was a quite positive review that graciously pointed out some oversights and made several helpful suggestions for improvement. His comments made me feel welcomed to the field and proud of my work. Obviously this is a best-case scenario, but in this case I thought it was a very nice thing for him to do.

Professor Staff said...

Wow. As a prof, reviwer, author, editor, I've never seen a review signed. I personally have not hesitated to tell people I've been a reviewer.

However, I have experienced a similar phenomena -- people who THINK I was a reviewer, and I was not. Or think (for a paper I edited) they know the reviewers, but they were way off. In one case, the authors made many presumptuous statements about the reviewers being non-experts using different techniques, when in reality it was a reviewer they recommended who was a close colleague/competitor in their subfield.

Based on all this, I recommend to never assume that you know a reviewer's identify. Even on NIH study sections, which publish a roster, I've seen cases where I think the grant writers would make false assumptions about who were the reviewers and who wrote what ...

In short, I try to stay polite and not say anything I could not say in person.