Research intelligence: how to deal with the gruesome reviewer 2

‘Reviewer 2’ is blamed by many academics for much of the stress and anxiety of publication – but the fightback is under way

June 13, 2019
Source: Reuters

A tale that circulated recently on Twitter sparked the interest of several thousand researchers familiar with the trials and tribulations of the peer review process. “Today I did something I have never done before, which was to withdraw an article under review after receiving reviewer feedback,” wrote Suzanne Young, lecturer in criminal justice at the University of Leeds.

“Like all authors, I (and co-authors) waited months to receive reviewer feedback on an article…when we did eventually get [it], we suffered the wrath of reviewer 2,” she continued.

In short, Dr Young found the reviewer’s comments so negative and unconstructive that she took the unusual step of withdrawing the paper from the journal altogether. “I wanted to take control,” she concluded, “So thank you reviewer 2, your rude, obnoxious comments have resulted in a moment of empowerment for me.”

For the uninitiated, “reviewer 2” has become something of an academic bogeyman – representative of all things negative and anxiety-inducing in the saga that is the peer review process. A brief scroll through the dedicated academic Facebook group, “Reviewer 2 must be stopped” (population: 20,000 members), will soon bring you up to speed.

A call from Times Higher Education on Twitter provided more painful anecdotes. “This work is useless. Nothing is presented,” Alexia Barrable, lecturer in education at the University of Dundee, was once told.

Others have memories of reviews of a more personal nature. “The author writes like a drunken after-dinner speaker,” Heather Marquette, professor of development politics at the University of Birmingham, was once told. “The editor told me to disregard the review and said they’d no longer be using [the] reviewer,” she explained. But "if the editor had used it, I may not have thought it was quite as funny as I did”, she added.

When pressed, it seems every published researcher has at least one bad review under their belt – with varying effects on their self-confidence. But perhaps there is much to learn from reviewer 2 comments – although not in the way these reckless reviewers intend.

As a PhD student, Kate Sang, now professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University, was told “that I should never be allowed to publish anything ever – written in caps”. She added: “It was bruising. What did I learn from it? That academics can be brutal and also wrong.”

“I do think that these stories need to be out there,” Jason Werr, lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at De Montfort University, told THE. “Especially for early career researchers who are much more vulnerable in this regard.

“I would also say that it behoves us to remember that our role as academics is to engage in the conversation of our fields – not to stifle those conversations,” he added. “Our role as reviewers is to further that conversation and aid publication – not bruise and batter those trying to be part of the conversation. I think some people forget this and see it as an adversarial role rather than the facilitative one that it needs to be.”

As an experienced peer reviewer on journal editorial boards, Alastair Sloan, head of Cardiff University’s dental school, has seen the recurring problems of peer review from both sides.

The best advice to reviewers is “simple”, Professor Sloan said: “Don’t review outside your sphere of knowledge and read the manuscript. The role is vital and takes time to do properly. Finally, remain impartial at all times.”

In recent years, an increasing number of journals and publishing platforms have begun to experiment with more transparent approaches to peer review. Last year, for example, the open access platform eLife ran a trial whereby authors were promised publication on spec on the condition that reviewers’ comments would be published alongside the paper.

For Professor Sloan, this approach does make for “more constructive reviewing, but you still get rogue reviewers”, he cautioned.

And, having been on the receiving end, he can recommend going back to the editor if you think that a review is unfair. “We were on the receiving end of one – the review was verging on abusive,” he said. "But the editor listened to our complaints and ignored it.”

For now, it seems that the common antidote to reviewer 2’s apparent spite is to take on the bad comments, have a rant to friends or Twitter and move on. But soon, who knows? After Dr Young and colleagues set the example of withdrawing their paper, perhaps we could indeed see a revolution against reviewer 2 under way.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: When reckless reviewers strike, stand your ground

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Reader's comments (3)

That's nothing. Destructive and abusive comments from lecturers marking Masters work that they did not teach at the University of Chester, received the same response withdrawal and a formal complaint still running.
It is clear to me that abusive, empty, aggressive comments should be disregarded as a matter of editorial policy. It is a form of anonymous trolling after all. More worrying in the long run is critical comment based on entrenched views of what the field requires. The intellectual stasis of the status quo is often the worst enemy of truly innovative research. The case of how long plate tectonics had to fight for acceptance is a good example. This is much harder for editors to deal with. Indeed they may be complicit in the process, as they will have established their reputations within existing research paradigms. I'm not sure how this can be effectively tackled. Peer review, for all its obvious flaws, remains the most reliable monitor for research excellence.
The problem is that editors are editing journals alongside writing research grants, writing articles, actually doing research, teaching, supervising PhD students, mentoring research staff, undertaking departmental administration roles. That leaves too little time for them to properly monitor and moderate reviewers' comments which means abuse, unhelpful comments are getting sent back the authors when they should've been discarded by editors. Moreover, reviewers are also reviewing papers on top of everyday academic work. This means peer reviewing falls way down, and often drops off, the "to do" list which means reviews are often rushed, hasty and undertaken when reviewers aren't in a favourable mood (in the evenings, at weekends, after being badgered by the editor). One solution is to better protect journal editorships in university workload models. Publishing houses should by out a portion of editors' time the same way UKRI does for research projects. Peer reviewers should be paid too and payments not made to reviewers who offer sub-standard reviews. That's not to say that all of the problem with peer reviewing is structural. Unfortunately, some (many) people in academia are arseholes and simply use the protection of anonymous reviewing to be nasty.

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