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Damn-you: Peer-review

Last week I received reviewer comments back on a paper I am involved with. The first reviewer began with the statement that; “there is no benefit...” (in publishing this paper, given the methodology and field) and strongly recommended rejection. The second reviewer concluded; “would strongly endorse publication” (without amendments). So… is it a good study worth publishing, or would the earth be better off if we recycled it into dunny-paper?

The peer-review process is such a good idea in theory; independent exports in the field read scientific work before it is published, good work is improved before publication and the crap that shouldn’t be published gets filtered out. But there are problems, many of which much smarter people than me have written about, and I don’t plan to rake over those coals here. Notwithstanding the debate over whether, or to what extent it is busted though, peer-review remains a one of the cornerstones of the way science is practiced these days.

Most of us in the game interact with the process from both sides, as people whose work is reviewed by others, and as reviewers ourselves. From a personal point of view, on balance I reckon my experience tips towards positive on both accounts. As painful as it often is at the time, I have to say most, if not all, my papers are better in their published end-state than they were when first submitted to a journal. As a reviewer, once I have fought off the concern that I am supposed to spending my time doing something else, I have learned much through reviewing other researchers’ work. Reviewing forces me to think very clearly and carefully about methodology and about how and what messages are being conveyed in a paper – both of which are extremely useful considerations when thinking about my own research. It is true that this learning experience is often about what not to do, but all the same, worthwhile.

What I have learned over time though is that I have to accept a certain amount of randomness in the process. As with the example above, it is obvious that no iteration of the paper we submit is going to be acceptable to both reviewers. The question though is how to respond. For me there are (at least) two important things to keep in mind.

  1. Try not to take it personally. Quite frankly, rejection sucks, and it’s easy to become discouraged, or angry, or both, or one then the other. The fact is that while the best reviews are dispassionate appraisals of the science and the way it is communicated, they can also (or instead) reflect of the personal biases and/or incompetence of the reviewer. A point, by the way, also worth thinking about when conducting a review oneself.

  2. Don’t miss any constructive advice. Even a negative review swimming in bias, misinterpretation and mistakes is likely to contain at least one or two valid points. Once you’ve finished thinking of ways to exact revenge on the reviewer should you ever find out who it is, it is worth picking through the comments carefully to see if there is any worthwhile advice hiding in there. Further, in the face of clear misinterpretation or confusion, it is always worth asking how that has come about. Is there a problem with the way the ideas are expressed?

To finish, it turns out myself and the co-authors of the study mentioned earlier are thinking more along the lines of the second reviewer than the first. So the paper is getting a buff and polish and we’ll see what bounces back from the next round of reviews.