Confessions of a reviewer

I tend to accept requests to review papers. I think of them as my ‘civic’ duty and I also think that however flawed it is, peer review is the best system of assessing what we write, be it books, articles or grant applications. As I don’t refuse, I tend to be asked a lot and, in the process, I write quite a lot reviews. And I want to share my pain.

1. Let me start with the most obvious. There are journals which send me a review request literally a few hours after I have sent the previous one. I see this and I dislike it. They’re probably desperate for reviewers, but my ‘civic’ duty is abused in such a way. And there is a journal which does it so blatantly, I started pressing no. It’s a good journal, but still, let’s pretend at least.

I had not known that journals have rankings of reviewers. Over a bottle (or two) of wine an editor of a journal for which I review told me I had the highest ranking. I tend to be on time, I tend to write longer reviews than others, and I tend not to offer mushy stuff.  He said to me: “Do you know you have never written a positive review for us?” I didn’t. No, he didn’t want me to change it.

I realised that I might actually have become Reviewer 3.

2. I actually dislike reviewing articles. This is because you tend to get the weak stuff much more often than the good stuff. And, one editor hinted, it’s best to send the crap to me, as they know I will not pull any punches. And I don’t – it’s part of the civic duty. But this is precisely why I don’t like reviewing. There is nothing enjoyable in taking apart an article which someone (presumably) worked hard on. I know very well what it is like to get a negative review, especially suggesting rejection.

I actually still remember my first reviews of papers I sent to internationally refereed journals. They almost crushed me. Two papers, two negative reviews (both quite fair, actually), I sincerely thought academic life was not for me. And I gave myself one more paper to go. I honestly decided that if that paper would not be published, I would quit. The third paper was on deceptiveness of evasion and the anonymous reviewer who identified herself (I’m not certain I should say who it was, but I will always be grateful), said it was very good. The article was published and my academic career was (quite literally) rescued.

And whenever I hear that I must enjoy taking papers down, relish in causing (academic) pain, I emphatically deny it. In fact, I hate it. I would be delighted, if I could write only wonderful and positive reviews.

3. There are two kinds of negative reviews, I think, one worse than the other. One is when the research is fairly sound, but the account is not so good. Contextualisation, literature, full accounting of the method and so on, and the like. Basically the article needs to be revised, rewritten, whatever. But at least it’s doable.

Today I wrote a review which I hate the most. The article was poor, very poor in my view (I tend to stress that I offer my ‘views’ and not the ‘truth’), but the problem was that in part of it was due to the design of the research. The research, I thought, resulted in data which could just about be binned. In my experience it happens very rarely, but sometimes it does. And I dread writing something like: I’m afraid I cannot offer recommendations how to improve the paper – it’s based on research which is flawed.

I sent the review off with a heavy heart.

4. Having published a bit, I can no longer be crushed by a negative review. It hurts, it hurts more than before, but if it is fair, I have no problem. What really gets me today are two kinds of reviews. First, reviews which suggest that the reviewer doesn’t understand, clearly is positioned outside the research area; second, reviews which suggest that I have lived in darkness all my academic life and the reviewer will now tell me how to do research. Both kinds are often patronising, pretentious, irritating.

Of course, I have no idea what authors think of my reviews. I promise, however, I do try to write reviews which are not patronising, in which I focus only on the things I can comment on (not often, but I do write that I focus only on one aspect of the article, as I have no idea about the other). I write reviews which focus on only on what I can find in the paper, not on how I would write it. I do not seek to agree with the authors! On how I review, I wrote here.


But I want to finish by flipping the perspective. Yes, I can ‘apologise’ all I and you want about all the negative reviews, but at the end of the day, they really do reflect the articles I am sent. As I am not in favour of the so-called ‘desk rejection’ and think that it’s just an exercise of power, I should not complain, but some papers are really dreadful. Every time I reject the idea that qualitative research is somehow inferior, I keep thinking about all these papers I read and hear. A few months ago at a conference, I heard that qualitative research consists in saying what the authors ‘feel’ about the data. And I wept…. Who needs quantitative enemies, if you have qualitative friends like this?

And so, here are (some) confessions of a reviewer. There is no moral, just sharing the pain of sending yet another negative review off.


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