Don’t be a prig in peer review

Jeff C. Clements reckons with a recent set of reviewer comments that used ‘being critical’ as a justification to be mean.
Jeff C. Clements is a government scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, in Moncton, Canada.

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Anonymous peer review is no place for rude comments.Credit: Getty

I very much enjoy being a peer reviewer. Reviewing manuscripts allows me to stay up to date on the most-current research in my field, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when helping authors to effectively disseminate their science.

However, I have been discouraged by some comments from fellow reviewers that I’ve seen relayed to authors. Multiple reviews, which were shared with all reviewers, were rife with unnecessary, personal comments that merely served as subjective criticisms of the authors’ competencies, rather than as constructive assessment of the research. One comment went as far as implying that the authors themselves were illogical and unintelligent.

The process of peer review is meant to be highly critical. Many researchers, however, don’t receive proper training on being effective peer reviewers (I didn’t). We know that we should be critical as reviewers, but we are rarely taught to be kind and courteous. I think that, all too often, this focus on criticism rather than compassion is interpreted as a licence to be mean.

Although some journals redact ad hominem reviewer comments, many do not, and authors commonly receive them. In my field of ecology and evolution, an analysis conducted by myself and colleagues found that 10–35% of peer reviews provided to authors contain demeaning language and 43% of reviews include at least one unprofessional comment. Indeed, I’ve endured similar comments, including this one: “What the authors have done here I would not even consider science.”

These comments can slow down the publishing process. For me, it takes much longer to respond to unprofessional comments than to constructive ones, because it’s rare that such feedback provides tangible suggestions to address. Therefore, authors will spend more time thinking about and crafting responses.

More important are the damaging effects that such comments can have on authors. A Nature survey last year revealed that bullying is a potentially significant source of poor mental health in PhD students. Personally, harsh reviewer comments have made me feel anxious and like an impostor.

What can I do if I see or receive unprofessional comments?

When I receive harsh comments from reviewers as an author, I initially feel annoyed and slighted, so I try not to respond right away. Instead, I take some time to digest the comments and not take them personally, which allows me to respond in a more neutral tone.

Sometimes, however, it is hard to get past the personal nature of these remarks. In such situations, I contact the relevant editors directly (some journals have defined policies for these instances; others do not). I do this as a reviewer if I see such comments from others relayed to authors, because many authors might not be comfortable doing this themselves. In my experience, editors are usually receptive to such feedback and often pass it along to the other reviewers. More authors and reviewers bringing comments that are just plain mean to the attention of editors might start changing the culture. I have provided a template for such communications on Twitter, which anyone can use.

This year, I reviewed for a journal that included a ‘positive comments’ section, where reviewers can praise aspects of the manuscript that were well done. I try to do this wherever possible in my own reviews, but journals having this section as part of the review structure will help reviewers to provide uplifting comments.

When I work as a co-editor for scientific publications at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa, where I also work as a research scientist, I do not edit original reviewer text. Instead, I send unprofessional reviews back for revision and specifically point out problems in a non-judgemental way. Having more authors and reviewers bring such issues directly to the attention of editors can, I think, facilitate more editors to do this.

Some journals are experimenting with publishing the full text of peer reviews in a manuscript. This could help to raise awareness of the problem, but because reviewers’ identities are hidden, there might still be little reason for them to be courteous.

Alongside the personal steps that individual reviewers can take, proper instruction and training on how to review manuscripts constructively, collegially and courteously would go a long way. Such training could be integrated into ‘research methods’-type courses in graduate school or offered as institutional workshops. I did a course on writing a good paper; why shouldn’t I do a course on how to peer review?

In this dark and strange global pandemic, there is perhaps no better time to actively promote and foster the power of compassion in peer review — not just for the sake of science, but for the people who do it.

Nature 585, 472 (2020)

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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