Droppings 3: Refereeing Adventures

Some posts that didn’t make the second-to-last cut for the collection I am working on.

Tales of Author A$$holishness

I review a lot of manuscripts. I think it’s an important service to the scientific community, and I feel that I don’t have the right to expect prompt and thoughtful reviews unless I am willing to provide them myself.

When I am the author, I spend a lot of time thinking about the responses received and do my best to address each comment and incorporate appropriate changes in the manuscript as much as possible. Very rarely, a comment is truly baseless or the referee is in error, but I still make sure I address said comment politely. Overwhelmingly, referee reports are useful and interesting, and result in a better manuscript, one which will be better appreciated by the scientific community.

In my experience as a referee, I find that most authors seem to be like me: they carefully address each item raised by the referee, if they disagree they do so very politely, and generally try really hard to incorporate changes and appreciate constructive feedback.

But…

There are always jerk authors who think their work and presentation are beyond reproach, who act dismissively  towards a thoughtful and well-meaning referee report, or even insult the referee. I have an “Author Hall of Shame” with the names of authors who have been exceptionally  a$$holish when responding to one of my referee reports. No, actually I don’t, I am too lazy to do that, but I would lie if I said I did not remember the names of some of the worst offenders, in order to ensure that I never ever review anything of theirs again.

The unchallenged champion  a$$hole authors were those on a paper I reviewed a few years back. It was a technically solid, very long manuscript submitted to a society journal. I said that I liked the technical part and that the results were interesting, but that the presentation needed work. My comments were to shorten and tighten up the abstract, to distill some of the key points of the paper (it was all over the place, and it was really not clear what the novelty was until you really carefully went through the very long paper), and I requested that a broader introduction be made, emphasizing that this work may connect to such and such areas (stupid me, actually wanting to help them make the paper accessible to a broader audience).

 

The response I received was this flaming 6-page diatribe in which they argued how it was trivially obvious that points 1-5 were the novel aspects of the work (none of what they claimed to be novel was obvious, only 2 or 3 out of 5 became obvious to me after a careful reading of the initial manuscript, and they didn’t rewrite the paper to make anything clearer or more obvious), that one of the papers I suggested for them to cite had a huge abstract so there was no need for them to shorten theirs (again, idiot me for trying to suggest an improvement in information retrieval and readability), and overall the authors spent a tremendous amount of time basically trying to argue that I was full of $hit, that the paper was absolutely perfect, and that none of the comments had any merit.

 

I wrote back that I had never in my life received such a disrespectful response and that the authors should have spent the immense amount of time invested in the response letter on improving their manuscript instead. I was pissed for a week after that.

 

The paper then went back to another referee, who basically reviewed the correspondence and told the authors that they had gone too far with their response letter to me, and that none of what the authors insist on being novel was obvious at all from in the abstract, introduction, conclusion, and to anyone who did not read the paper in detail. After this arbitrator’s response, the authors made the requested changes and the paper was published. (I saw all the correspondence after the paper had been accepted and I felt vindicated after the other referee had basically seconded my concerns.)

 

Fun fact: This paper was, coincidentally, authored by two women. I can only imagine what the editor thought (“Catfight!” “PMS!”) reading the correspondence between two female authors and a female referee. I don’t know if the corresponding author got the memo that us lady scientists are supposed to be even better behaved than male scientists, because we always run the risk of being labeled emotional/hormonal/crazy…

 

Today I received another a$$holish response to one of my reports (not sure still if it’s “Author Hall of Shame” material), so I am fuming on the intertubes instead of working on a manuscript of my own. I basically recommended publication after minor revisions, but noticed that the authors cited themselves disproportionately much and it skewed the view of the field. I asked that they add more references (did not ask for any specific ones) that put their work in the broader context of the field and connect their work  to some of other closely related fields that are very active.

 

I get a response that they are puzzled by my assertion that there are too many of their own references, and that the connections to the other areas are interesting but that the subject is too broad to reference (so presumably they didn’t want to bother looking any up). Yes, referencing  a double-digit number of your own papers (although technically clustered under a few references, each reference containing multiple papers) is totally not too many among  a total of  twenty-ish references (the other ones being mostly single-paper references, and largely written by  people you list in the acknowledgments). Yeah. A youngster picking up your paper will totally get a balanced view of the field.

When  a nice  referee asks that you add some references to more broadly represent the state of the art in the introduction, just fuckin’ do it! I did not make anyone perform new and expensive experiments, or even run new simulations, just spend an afternoon on the Web of Science. DO IT! It’s for your own paper’s good. More often than not, that way you will discover some interesting papers you probably should have discovered previously anyway. Knowing the literature and where the state-of-the-art is in your subfield and closely related ones are important. Ignore them at your own peril.

I have to say one thing: among the authors who are jerks when resubmitting, Europeans make an overwhelming majority (I go by who the corresponding author is, or who signed the response letter, if applicable). In particular, there is a specific country in Europe that seems to breed surprisingly bellicose corresponding authors. Not sure why that is.

WTF people. I invest my time and energy to review manuscripts, and do it for free. If you are dismissive or disrespectful, next time I will simply not review your paper. And if our paths cross at a conference, I will go out of my way to not talk to you because I have it black-on-white that you are an ass.

I welcome you to share your own stories from the reviewer trenches.

3 comments

  1. Is this country a certain country in Eastern Europe? 😉 If so, I have had similar experiences with authors from this country.

    The thing I hate the most is when I say that the paper is not well-written and offer suggestions for improvements, and then the authors aggressively assert that it *is* well-written! Dude, if a reader thinks something is not well-written, it is not well-written. The writer is often the worst judge when it comes to quality of writing.

    Kudos to you for standing up to rude authors! Unlike you, I tend to shut down in the face aggression and just let things be.

  2. My sample size is too small to draw conclusions from, so let’s pool ours… Hungarians are vastly overrepresented in my collection of asshole behavior stories.

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