Sunday, 26 August 2018

Should editors edit reviewers?


How Einstein dealt with peer review: from http://theconversation.com/hate-the-peer-review-process-einstein-did-too-27405

This all started with a tweet from Jesse Shapiro under the #shareyourrejections hashtag:

JS: Reviewer 2: “The best thing these authors [me and @ejalm] could do to benefit this field of study would be to leave the field and never work on this topic again.” Paraphrasing only slightly.

This was quickly followed by another example
Bill Hanage: #ShareYourRejections “this paper is not suitable for publication in PNAS, or indeed anywhere.”

Now, both of these are similarly damning, but there is an important difference. The first one criticises the authors, the second one criticises the paper. Several people replied to Jesse’s tweet with sympathy, for instance:

Jenny Rohn: My condolences. But Reviewer 2 is shooting him/herself in the foot - most sensible editors will take a referee's opinion less seriously if it's laced with ad hominem attacks.

I took a different tack, though:
DB: A good editor would not relay that comment to the author, and would write to the reviewer to tell them it is inappropriate. I remember doing that when I was an editor - not often, thankfully. And reviewer apologised.

This started an interesting discussion on Twitter:

Ben Jones: I handled papers where a reviewer was similarly vitriolic and ad hominem. I indicated to the reviewer and authors that I thought it was very inappropriate and unprofessional. I’ve always been very reluctant to censor reviewer comments, but maybe should reconsider that view

DB: You're the editor. I think it's entirely appropriate to protect authors from ad hominem and spiteful attacks. As well as preventing unnecessary pain to authors, it helps avoid damage to the reputation of your journal

Chris Chambers: Editing reviews is dangerous ground imo. In this situation, if the remainder of the review contained useful content, I'd either leave the review intact but inform the authors to disregard the ad hom (& separately I'd tell reviewer it's not on) or dump the whole review.

DB: I would inform reviewer, but I don’t think it is part of editor’s job to relay abuse to people, esp. if they are already dealing with pain of rejection.

CC: IMO this sets a dangerous precedent for editing out content that the editor might dislike. I'd prefer to keep reviews unbiased by editorial input or drop them entirely if they're junk. Also, an offensive remark or tone could in some cases be embedded w/i a valid scientific point.

Kate Jeffery: I agree that editing reviewer comments without permission is dodgy but also agree that inappropriate comments should not be passed back to authors. A simple solution is for editor to revise the offending sentence(s) and ask reviewer to approve change. I doubt many would decline.

A middle road was offered by Lisa deBruine:
LdB: My solution is to contact the reviewer if I think something is wrong with their review (in either factual content or professional tone) and ask them to remove or rephrase it before I send it to the authors. I’ve never had one decline (but it doesn’t happen very often).

I was really surprised by how many people felt strongly that the reviewer’s report was in some sense sacrosanct and could and should not be altered. I’ve pondered this further, but am not swayed by the arguments.

I feel strongly that editors should be able to distinguish personal abuse from robust critical comment, and that, far from being inappropriate, it is their duty to remove the former from reviewer reports. And as for Chris’s comment: ‘an offensive remark or tone could in some cases be embedded w/i a valid scientific point’ – the answer is simple. You rewrite to remove the offensive remark; e.g. ‘The authors’ seem clueless about the appropriate way to run a multilevel model’ could be rewritten to ‘The authors should take advice from a statistician about their multilevel model, which is not properly specified’. And to be absolutely clear, I am not talking about editing out comments that are critical of the science, or which the editor happens to disagree with. If a reviewer got something just plain wrong, I’m okay with giving a clear steer in the editor’s letter, e.g.: ‘Reviewer A suggests you include age as a covariate. I notice you have already done that in the analysis on p x, so please ignore that comment.’ I am specifically addressing comments that are made about the authors rather than the content of what they have written. A good editor should find that an easy distinction to make. From the perspective of an author, being called out for getting something wrong is never comfortable: being told you are a useless person because you got something wrong just adds unnecessary pain.

Why do I care about this? It’s not just because I think we should all be kind to each other (though, in general, I think that’s a good idea). There’s a deeper issue at stake here. As editors, we should work to reinforce the idea that personal disputes should have no place in science. Yes, we are all human beings, and often respond with strong emotions to the work of others. I can get infuriated when I review a paper where the authors appear to have been sloppy or stupid. But we all make mistakes, and are good at deluding ourselves. One of the problems when you start out is that you don’t know what you don’t know: I learned a lot from having my errors pointed out by reviewers, but I was far more likely to learn from this process if the reviewer did not adopt a contemptuous attitude. So, as reviewers, we should calm down and self-edit, and not put ad hominem comments in our reviews. Editors can play a role in training reviewers in this respect.

For those who feel uncomfortable with my approach - i.e. edit the review and tell reviewer why you have done so – I would recommend Lisa de Bruine’s solution of raising the issue with the reviewer and asking them to amend their review. Indeed, in today’s world where everything is handled by automated systems, that may be the only way of ensuring that an insulting review does not go to the author (assuming the automated system lets you do that!).

Finally, as everyone agreed that, this this does not seem to be a common problem, so perhaps not worth devoting much space to, but I'm curious to know how other editors respond to this issue.

8 comments:

  1. I'm curious to know whether reviewers sign their reviews when they write aggressively.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think I prefer Lisa de Bruine’s solution if it works but I see nothing wrong with editing the review to remove ad hominem attacks. The editor is the "editor". In this case, I think it would be appropriate to cc the reviewer with a short note explaining the reasons for the edits.

    In cases of extremely vitriolic attacks, I would ditch the review under the suspicion that the reviewer was incapable of applying even a smidgen of rationality or critical thought to the actual paper.

    I have never written a journal review but have done somewhat similar work in grant reviews and evaluation of research results in Government. Comments such as "This researchers appears to dumb to come in out of the rain" probably are not the best. Or so my boss told me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I don't recall encountering this problem when I handled manuscripts at Nature Nanotechnology, but I think it is fine to remove ad hominem attacks before passing a report on to the authors - and to take them into account when making a decision.
    However, I do remember several occasions when the point-by-point response from an author contained ad hominem attacks on a referee. On these occasions I usually returned the response to the author and said something along the lines that, in my experience, referees did not respond well to such comments/attacks and that rewording the response would increase the chances of a positive response from the referee
    Peter Rodgers (Features Editor, eLife; previously Chief Editor, Nature Nanotechnology)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes, absolutely, editors should edit the reviewers when the reviewers go off the rails. I'm reminded of the sexist "get a man to co-author on this paper" review. That review should not have gone to the authors.

    Some researcher routinely attack traditional journals for providing nothing of value to scientific publication. Checking reviewers comments adds value to the publication process by stopping it from getting dragged through mud.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I always start by understanding the work of the author. Then I try to do my best to give suggestions that seem to improve the work of the author, if the author agrees. I make suggestions line by line. I'm tougher with myself than with the work of the authors I'm reviewing. But I'm still going to find a reviewer who does the same for the work I'm about to submit as an author. I will continue to do my best for the authors to improve their work, whose revision I should like to be referred to. Typically, I consider it to be an abuse to take more than five business days to review a work. Therefore, I always strive to never take more than five business days to review a job.

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