How not to write a peer review

Although I am by no means a rookie I was shocked by the tone of the latest review I got from a journal. It wasn’t just any journal, it was the one where my most cited article had been published and I was under the impression that we were on good working terms. I doubt that now.

I have published a number of papers and most of them have been through several rounds of peer review. Similarly, I have been an active reviewer for a dozen or so journals in the past ten years. I would like to think that I am respectful and constructive as a reviewer and responsive to well-intentioned criticism as an author. Because the motor of all scientific endeavours is peer review it is essential that some basic rules of conduct are appreciated in the process. Unfortunately researchers do not receive formal training in peer review. Critical thinking is not the problem – that we are trained to do – it is how to express oneself in a way that is conducive to respectful scientific debate.

The review I got was short and undoubtedly the person who wrote it, very angry. “I am sure you know about epidemiology and psychometrics, så (sic) I don’t understand why you wrote that”. The person left a Nordic vowel in the text so now I have to live with the fact that it is most likely a colleague in my country. Also, the phrases ”I am sorry on your behalf” and ”Did you not perform pilot studies in a project of this magnitude??” render this review completely inappropriate. Notwithstanding the possible validity of some of the comments, I am shocked that the editor let it pass.

Because of the harsh and personal tone of the review I wonder if the colleague who wrote it has any personal or professional issues with me. If so, he or she should have declared a conflict of interest to begin with since the journal does not employ a double-blind process and my name was open to the reviewer. Although a perfect opportunity to unpunished beat up someone whose face you hate, that is not what peer review is for.

The other end of the spectrum is, of course, when no review is done at all. In a recent “sting operation” Science sent a spoof paper to 304 open-access journals, half of which had accepted the paper, which was completely concocted and had fatal scientific flaws. Open-access journals charge fees for publishing so it is easy enough to draw the conclusion that money, rather than scientific merit was in front of the eyes of the editors who accepted the spoof paper.  (Although the problem is more that of peer review rather than open access.)

But what was in front of the eyes of the editor of my journal where the reviewer submitted this despicable review? Have editors become so desperate to get review that anything will do? A colleague recently received a very kind letter from an editor stating that she had tried to send the paper to 11 (!) potential reviewers, only one of whom subsequently returned with a review.

In any case, I have done my fair share of peer review this week: I submitted one and said yes to another  due in three weeks. The one I reviewed had the bad luck of a basically identical paper having been published just a few months before theirs and they didn’t cite it. I still didn’t feel the urge to tell them “Did you not perform proper literature searches when writing up your study?” and “I am sorry on your behalf, but you have nothing new to say”. It’s just not how to write a peer review.

ImagePhoto taken by Fanni Sarkadi Kristiansson at Toronga Zoo, Sydney.

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