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How to tell whether you’re the victim of a bad peer review

It’s one of the worst feelings in science: You and your colleagues have worked for years to uncover a small truth about our world. You write the data into a cohesive story with evidence, citations, and conclusions. You submit the paper for publication so that all of humanity may benefit. But instead of disseminating your results, the journal sends you a more disappointing communication. One of your peer reviewers was like, “Nah, this manuscript isn’t a thing.”

Peer review was never meant to be a perfect process, nor could it be. And most peer review is productive, polite, and necessary. But sometimes one of the reviewers is just a teensy bit … how to say this … horrible.

It’s such a common complaint among scientists, in fact, that kvetching about rotten peer reviews has spawned Twitter accounts and even academic studies about the harm these unprofessional criticisms cause to both science and scientists.

If any of the following sound familiar, you may have been the victim of a bad peer review yourself:

You Know What Would Be Awesome? More Experiments!

There’s a moment, while reading any peer review of your work, when your anxiety tips over either into relief or dread—and that tipping point is the moment when you learn whether your reviewer is asking you to perform more experiments. Editing text is relatively simple. But multiweek or multimonth lab work, which itself may stall for reasons beyond your control (closed lab anyone?), can turn what you considered a “finished” publication into nearly a new research project. Now get back in the lab, and try not to disprove your original hypothesis!

Please Do Something You Already Did

“A figure would be useful to illustrate this point,” your reviewer writes. And you agree—which is why you indeed included that figure. In a way, this sort of comment is a freebie. You can thank the journal for this opportunity to rectify your grievous wrongness—then submit a response with a figure you don’t even have to spend time making. On the other hand, though, seriously? Wouldn’t it be great to peer review your peer reviewers’ reviews? It reminds me of those automated phone messages that say, “You have reached us outside of our office hours; please call back between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” and you’re like, it’s freaking noon right now, and I AM CALLING DURING YOUR OFFICE HOURS YOU UNHELPFUL ROBOT.

Perform These Mutually Exclusive Actions

Murphy’s Law of Peer Review states that if one reviewer praises something in your manuscript, then a second reviewer will ask you to change it. This creates a logical paradox, which is annoying for editing purposes, but useful if you want to make sci-fi robots explode.

I Reject Something You Didn’t Say

Sometimes a reviewer’s comment seems so misplaced that you have to wonder if it ended up attached to your manuscript by mistake. It’s like one of those Amazon reviews for a wheelbarrow that reads, “I would never wash my hair with this again.” You can always argue to the journal that you believe you received the comment in error—but then you run the risk of receiving an email that says, “You deluded twit. Now you’ve proved yourself to be so out-of-touch that you can’t even understand that this review is indeed meant for you. I don’t have time for this—I need to get a wheelbarrow out of my hair.”

Look at the Size of That Diversion While I Scoop You!

Oh no! It’s a review that will take you a while to address! It’s unthinkable that a reviewer in the same field as you, working on the same problem, motivated by scarce resources, might be trying to stall your publication so that their own can supersede yours. The very idea! Oh, hey, their own results were published just a month later, and you’re stuck revising your paper! Now that’s some rotten luck.

NOT GOOD FIX IT OK BYE

Another common complaint is about nonspecific reviews, such as “Improve this paper.” Oh yeah? Improve your critique first. My paper needs work? So do your communication skills. Peer review is like a handoff back to the author, and if the reviewer gives you no direction to address their criticism, they’ve created an impossible task. This is like the sort of critique I used to receive from my high school girlfriend. It’s the reviewer’s way of saying, “You did something wrong. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but now you get to spend the rest of the homecoming game trying to figure it out, and if you’re not appropriately contrite, I’m going to spend the rest of the fourth quarter pouting near the hot chocolate fundraiser.”

This Takedown Represents My Finest Work!

It’s OK for reviewers to criticize your work, and it’s certainly valid for them to tell you so. But sometimes you just know they’re dancing with delight in their own head about how deliciously they cut down your paper. They don’t just say, “The paper’s conclusions do not necessarily follow from the evidence presented.” They say, “The paper’s conclusions read as though they were written by my cat, who is deceased.” Or, and this is a real one: “I am afraid this manuscript may contribute not so much towards the field’s advancement as much as toward its eventual demise.” Yes, big surprise, sometimes scientists can be self-obsessed jerks who are so pleased with their own snarky phrasing that they prioritize the sharpness of the zinger over the feelings of the zinged. They don’t mean it. It’s just that, for them, this is socializing.

Needs More Me

Isn’t it amazing how many papers would be acceptable for publication—if it weren’t for their failure to cite one of the peer reviewers? Wow, what are the odds? The exact element missing from the paper just happens to come from the very person reviewing it! There’s no way this sort of comment is driven by narcissism, envy, and competition for severely limited funding!

It’s Not the Science, It’s You

The absolute worst peer review is the kind that ignores the contents of your paper and instead focuses on assumptions the reviewer makes about you. English as a second language? Early career? Not a member of the reviewer’s preferred gender? Affiliation with a university the reviewer deems substandard? All of these are reasons a reviewer can downgrade your paper, and all of these are terrible reasons. Upon resubmission of your paper, see if the journal will let you change your name to Chasworth Q. Whitington IV, Tenured Chair of Every Science Department at Harvard University’s Oxford School of MIT.

Criticism is important in science, both taking it and giving it. A reviewer isn’t obligated to preserve the feelings of the author, but there’s no reason they should go out of their way to needlessly bash the author or their work, either. Feedback should be honest, thoughtful, constructive, and respectful. You hear that, Reviewer No. 2? Respectful, you butt face.

And if you find yourself assessing someone else’s work, please remember the golden rule of peer review: Do unto authors as you would have authors do unto you.

Now get back to the lab, and try not to disprove your original hypothesis.

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