Image: © Jason McDermott, with permission
Are reviewers crazy? Or are they saints? Both, of course, and neither; but I’ll try to do better than that.
I’m writing this post because last week, the peer-review comic (above) was wildly popular on Twitter – it must have come up in my feed several dozen times. Which is reasonable enough, because it’s pretty funny, and we all feel this way about peer review from time to time. Those reviewers are crazy, eh? And sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re really crazy (for instance when they suggest a paper needs some male coauthors and bring the internet down in flames around PLoS One’s writhingly apologetic leadership)*.
But, here’s the funny thing. Everybody furiously retweeting that comic missed the first two sentences of the blog post it originally decorated:
“I’m a big fan of peer review. Most of the revisions that reviewers suggest are very reasonable and sometimes really improve the manuscript…” [The Mad Scientist’s Confectioner’s Club, Jason McDermott]
I’m a big fan of peer review, too. As an author, peer reviewers help me improve my manuscripts so they’ll have more impact on more people. As an editor, they help me improve my judgment about which papers I should accept, and what changes will make them better. And they do this as volunteers, without any compensation from the journal or from the author, without much (if any) credit from their academic institutions, and often without much in the way of thanks, either. If sainthood is a bit of a reach, at least a healthy dollop of gratitude seems in order.
It’s easy to forget this, as an author, because peer reviewers are playing two roles at once: gatekeeping and manuscript improvement. As an author it’s only natural to focus on their gatekeeping role: to see the reviewers as what stands between you and publication. Maybe they’re the boot holding your career down; maybe they’re just forcing you to add a red-tinted windshield and a top-mounted laser cannon. This is an understandable way to think about peer reviews, but it isn’t the right way. It’s their manuscript-improvement role that makes peer reviewers invaluable. If you’re thinking about your reviews the right way, every comment is a chance to make your paper better.
Now, sometimes reviewers say dumb things. Of course they do – they’re human! They may overlook something in your manuscript; they may misunderstand something; they may lack knowledge you’d like to assume all your readers have; they may be wrong about a point of statistics; they may just be tired, or hung over, or having a bad day. We all do all of these things from time to time. But that doesn’t make the peer review system “broken” (as one often hears). In fact, even a reviewer comment that seems completely moronic has value. That’s because your reviewer is simulating the experience your reader is going to have, and the reviewer’s mistake (if that’s what it is) is alerting you to a (probable) future reader mistake. Ask yourself: how did the reviewer get that crazy idea? Are you sure it wasn’t because your paper was a little bit unclear, or a little bit disorganized, or a little bit too lengthy?** (And, for that matter, are you sure that red-tinted windshield doesn’t actually make your paper better?) Anything that helps tell your story more clearly to more readers (including busy, tired, or careless ones) can only further your contribution to science.
So, reviewers (sometimes) are crazy, and reviewers (sometimes) are saints. The question, of course, is how often they’re one and how often they’re the other. I’ve seen a lot of peer reviews in my career as an author and an editor – certainly at least a thousand. How many of those were perfect? Probably none. How many were crazy? I can think of two. And that seems pretty good to me, for a system that relies on imperfect humans donating their time and effort to perform a difficult and often thankless task.
I’ll be honest: from time to time I’ve resented my reviewers, cursed my reviewers, even made fun of my reviewers – because like them, I’m human. But I’ve also thanked my reviewers, privately and publicly, because they’ve made every one of my published papers better.
Every one of them.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 5, 2015
Thanks to Jason McDermott for comments on a draft of this post.
*Of course, I didn’t see the whole review, nor the manuscript being reviewed, so maybe the comments only seemed crazy because they were taken out of context. Yeah, that’s it….
**This is something I really didn’t understand early in my career. I still don’t understand it when I first read through each new review I receive; but I now know to put the review aside for 24 hours, and with that perspective I almost always see a loose thread in my manuscript that could trip up a reader.