12 February 2016

Editors are responsible when you get a bad review, too

Jon Tennant, writing at Science Open, has me thinking about the ongoing issue of anonymity in science again, particularly in peer review. My thinking on this matter has changed a lot. I sign my reviews, but I’m much more sympathetic to those who don’t sign their reviews than I used to be.

Jacquelyn Gill recently provided a useful reminder of how unhelpful and downright crappy some reviews can be:

I recently had an NSF proposal reviewer say outright that I was only on a proposal to check the gender diversity box, and that I am a “competent palynologist” (sic) and don’t need “pity support” from male colleagues. ... the implication that I wasn’t deeply involved in the conception and writing of the proposal was insulting to me and my colleagues, and there was zero evidence of that in the proposal.

When you get a bad review, the first thing you’re tempted to do is lay blame on the reviewers. After all, the words originated there. This carries through to most of the writing and research on peer review: most arguments center on anonymity of the reviewers, and to some degree, the authors.

If an author gets such a bad, biased review, it is not solely the fault of the reviewer. An editor passed that along. An editor decided that stupid review was worth conveying to the author.

An editor who did that should have her or his feet put to the fire. Part of the job of an editor is to provide oversight. An editor who blindly forwards all reviews regardless of their content, regardless of how blindingly unhelpful or even blatantly sexist they are, is incompetent.

While most journals allow anonymous peer review, they don’t allow anonymous editors. Until scientific culture changes to make reviews more open (and it may not), editors should be pressure points of accountability. We need to publicize cases where editors pass on the dumbass reviews.

This can work. There’s been at least one case of an associate editor being relieved of duties after passing on a bad review.

External links

Peer review: open sesame?
Over-proved, but fantastic flavor: The Great British Baking Show as a model for writing reviews

1 comment:

Tim Vines said...

This is absolutely right - and the blame also lies with the editorial office as well. Ideally, the review should be returned to the reviewer with a request for changes to make it more objectively about the article/proposal at hand.

Of course, authors will often feel that reviewers have been overly harsh about the research, but as long as they've focused their criticisms on the paper and not the authors this is a natural part of peer review.