Don’t be a prig in peer review

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Don’t be a prig in peer review

I really enjoy being a peer reviewer. Reviewing manuscripts allows me to stay up to date on the most current research in my field, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I help authors disseminate their science effectively.

However, I have been discouraged by some of the comments from fellow reviewers that I have seen relating to the authors. Many of the reviews, which were shared with all reviewers, were filled with unnecessary, personal comments that served as subjective criticism of the authors' competencies, rather than merely a constructive evaluation of the research. One comment meant that the author himself was illogical and stupid.

The process of peer review is considered extremely important. However, many researchers don't receive the proper training on being effective peer reviewers (I didn't). We know that as critics we should be critical, but we are rarely taught to be kind and humble. I find that, too often, a focus on criticism rather than compassion is interpreted as license to be mean.

Although some journals revise ad hominem reviewer comments, many do not, and the authors usually receive them. In my field of ecology and development, an analysis by myself and colleagues found that 10–35% of peer reviews provided to authors contained abusive language and 43% of reviews included at least one non-professional comment. . In fact, I've endured similar comments, including: "What the authors have done here, I wouldn't even consider the science."

These comments can slow down the publishing process. To me, it takes longer to respond to non-professional comments than constructive comments, as it is rare that such feedback provides concrete suggestions to address. Therefore, authors will spend more time thinking about and preparing responses.

More important are the harmful effects such comments can have on the authors. A Nature survey last year revealed that bullying is a potentially significant source of poor mental health among PhD students. Personally, harsh reviewer comments have made me anxious and feel like a cheater.

What can I do if I see or receive unprofessional comments?

When I receive harsh comments from reviewers as a writer, I initially feel annoyed and humiliated, so I try not to react immediately. Instead, I take some time to digest the comments and don't take them personally, which allows me to respond in a more neutral tone.

However, sometimes, the personal nature of these comments is hard to transcend. In such situations, I contact the respective editors directly (some journals have defined policies for these examples; others do not). I do this as a reviewer if I see such comments from others as belonging to the authors, as many authors may not be comfortable doing so themselves.

In my experience, editors are usually receptive to this kind of feedback and often pass it on to other reviewers. More writers and reviewers bring comments that mean directly to the attention of editors, the culture may begin to change. I have provided a template for such communication on Twitter that anyone can use.

This year, I did a review for a journal that included a 'positive comments' section, where reviewers can praise aspects of a well-done manuscript. I try to do this wherever possible in my reviews, but journals that keep this section as part of the review structure will help reviewers provide upvoting comments.

While I work as a co-editor for scientific publications at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ottawa, where I also serve as a research scientist, I do not edit the original reviewer text. Instead, I send back non-professional reviews for revision and specifically point out problems in a non-judgmental way. Having more authors and reviewers can bring such issues directly to editors' attention, I think, may facilitate more editors to do so.

Some journals are experimenting with publishing the full text of peer reviews in a manuscript. It may help to raise awareness of the problem, but since the identities of the reviewers are hidden, there may be no reason for them to be polite.

Proper instruction and training on how to review manuscripts constructively, collegiately and politely will go a long way, along with individual steps that can be taken by individual reviewers. Such training may be integrated into 'research methods'-type courses in graduate school or may be offered as institutional workshops. I took a good paper writing course; Why shouldn't I take a course on how to do peer review?
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