You spend years working on a research project, you get results, you write a manuscript, you think it’s really good, you submit it to a journal, and you get back Mean Reviews.
• Quit because clearly you are too stupid to publish?
• Cry/scream and consider finding a career that makes everyone love you (e.g. proprietor of a lemonade stand)?
• Descend into paranoid bitterness because the reviewers and editors are morons and may be plotting to steal your ideas and/or squelch your manuscript so they can scoop you?
• Ignore the reviews completely and resubmit the same manuscript to another journal?
I personally wouldn’t do any of those things, although maybe I would do a bit of some of them first before calming down and dealing with the situation in a constructive way.
I have been thinking about this lately not because I got Mean Reviews (recently) but because I am working with a few people who have clearly been affected by reviews they have received in the recent past. Writing (different) papers with them now means having to navigate the psychic effects of past mean reviews.
If you get Mean Reviews, after screaming and being bitter for an hour or two or 168, look at the reviews closely. Some bad reviews have nothing of value in them and are just basically mean, but many contain some constructive criticism that can be used to improve the manuscript. If I’m going to resubmit a manuscript somewhere – to a different journal or the same one – I revise it in light of whatever review comments I think are useful. Submitting the exact same manuscript, even if to a different journal, might be a mistake, especially if it goes to the same reviewer(s).
It’s worthwhile reading reviews in a calm, dissociated way, especially if you don’t yet have much experience with reviews. I have written before about how, on several occasions, one of my grad students or postdocs has gotten reviews back and has been devastated by how negative they are. I look at the same review comments and think “This is a great review! These are nice comments!”. You can’t expect reviews to tell you that you are brilliant and that your science is perfect. Reviews are intrinsically critical, and if the system works as it is intended, this criticism will improve your work and your writing and help you publish the best paper possible.
I think that some disappointment stems from an unrealistic expectation that if you work extremely hard on an interesting paper and have excellent data, well-written text, beautiful figures, and all the rest, that the reviews will all be entirely positive. With reviews, you don't get an A for effort, but critical reviews are not the end of the world (or your career). And it's good to keep in mind that not all criticism is negative.
If the reviews are negative (as opposed to critical), in some cases a thorough and calm-but-firm rebuttal letter to the editor can be very helpful, especially if you can point out in a compelling way that the negative review is (1) in error about the perceived flaws of your manuscript/research, or (2) mean but vague (i.e., not specific about why the reviewer hated the manuscript).
In other cases, the negative reviews sink the manuscript. Maybe the reviewers were not objective, careful, or nice, but you still need to deal with the reviews and think about the comments carefully.
Not every paper can or should be published, but if the paper is (or will be) good, any disappointment with critical or mixed reviews should be short-lived as you dive back into the paper to fix it up so you can resubmit it and eventually have the thrill of seeing it published.
And in terms of how mean reviews affect your approach to other papers, I think it's important to keep some perspective and not become an ultra-perfectionist who focuses so much on cosmetic details that might be targets for scathing comments that completion and submission of the manuscript never actually occurs (Fig. 1)
6 months ago