An editor is responsible for the reviews he decides to use!


Cry Baby

It happend to me again. Yesterday, I received an email saying ``we are very sorry that, based on the reviewers' comments, we have to reject your submission for publication''. You must know the feeling.

But for some reason, this time it was not enough to just explain to me that I failed to communicate the message of my paper properly. No! Anonymous Reviewer Number Three could not help himself in his urge to write, and I quote: ``Technically, all this is very simple, essentially at the level of exercises in an undergraduate categories course.'' and further on: ``By calling the simple example that is intended as a motivation "Gedanken Experiment", the author puts himself in the tradition of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg exploring the wonders of quantum mechanics. In doing so he should at least get the wonders of German spelling right.''. What he means, of course, is that I can leave the mathematical proofs out because they are rather straightforward, and perhaps that without them the paper becomes a bit thin. I think he is right, there. Furthermore, he wants to point out that I made a spelling mistake because, in German spelling, "Gedankenexperiment" is a single word. Which is a justified comment too. The message that reaches me on first reading, however, is that the reviewer is a @#$! who seeks to degrade his colleagues in the field. I really have to push my masochistic self to read it again twice and find the actual message of the review, because, of course, he has got a point somewhere.

After already receiving the blow of a rejection, a blunt review can really strike me down. I know it shouldn't. We scientists are in the pursuit of truth. We should not display human emotions like a longing for acknowledgement. But for a few hours I felt depressed and angry and was tempted to leave science for good. This review was subjective and it did not show any respect whatsoever for my efforts. It spoiled the fun of doing the research itself. I wrote an email to the editors explaining that I was disappointed with the tone of the review, they sent it through to the reviewer, and that's where it ended.

Analysis

The primary goal of a reviewers criticism is, of course, to assist a verdict in accepting or rejecting a paper. For this, it must above all else contain enough objective and relevant facts about the paper, and the reviewers view on their worth. An important secondary goal is to give feedback, which means the criticism should be targeted towards improvement. At the least, the criticism should not have the unwanted side-effect of destroying valuable research because it was not written down right. This is where the use of proper language comes in.
According to the many books and websites that are available on giving constructive feedback, for a review to be objective it should consist of a list of objective, i.e. verifiable, observations of facts regarding the paper . Reviewers should refrain from interpreting facts, nor should they concern themselves with issues regarding the author, because such statements distract from the reviewing process and are likely to trigger unwanted emotional responses. Furthermore, for a criticism to be accepted, to be perceived as constructive, and to be a successful step towards improvement, it is important that it is phrased as an expression of appreciation or concern , rather than as an expression of appraisal or disapproval. In order for a human being to open up to feedback, he must first feel acknowledged. Someone who shows concern is worth listening to, someone who shows disapproval is perceived as ignoring your worth or looking for a fight. Clearly the review of Anonymous Reviewer Number Three is in violation with these, which explains my initial emotional response.

The key to improving the situation in the future, I find, is with the editors. They have te power to improve this reviewing practice. For certain, the editors are responsible for the final verdict, and it is their job to ensure, and show , that their judgement is based on objective facts. If they decide to use a certain review, it is their responsibility to ensure that this review is objective and does not have unwanted side effects that harm the author or the reputation of the journal. It is therefore in their interest to point out to the reviewers what is expected of them. In order to do this, I propose that editors:
+ include the above guidelines for constructive feedback in their own reviewing guidelines;
+ approach the reviewer to point out that parts of the review are not objective before making a decision on the paper;
+ add comments to the reviews they decide to use, pointing out how subjective passages were interpreted;
Nothing needs to be deleted or left out, annotations will suffice, but when editors decide to pass-on reviewers comments, they become responsible for the objectivity of those comments.

Finally, I think it will help if reviewers voluntarily dismiss their right to remain anonymous. One of the common guidelines on feedback that I left out earlier, is that it should always be delivered in person . The fact that the reviewing process is blind makes this impossible. Misunderstandings occur more easily and have more dramatic effects. Therefore, for the sake of delivering feedback properly, I will from now on always sign my reviews and use this letter as a justification for it. As a bonus, signing my reviews will stimulate me to keep the other guidelines for constructive feedback in mind as well, and it will open up new possibilities to discuss research with others.

Pieter Cuijpers