One important aspect of the scientific process is the assessment of the overall quality of manuscripts by fellow experts in the field, a procedure commonly known as peer review.
Peer review can in many cases greatly improve the quality of the product. Reviewers can point out potential flaws in thinking, suggest potential analytical improvements, suggest certain aspects that may optimize the flow and rationale of an introduction or discussion. Receiving a well-intended and well-formulated assessment from a reviewer can really be an uplifting experience, often including ‘Eureka!’ moments. I have been quite lucky to get some very good reviewer assessments that, almost always, elevate the quality of the story in the manuscript.
The complete opposite is also a possibility, and to be honest, also quite common. Some reviewers say the nastiest things about other people’s work, and, in doing that, completely disregard that any paper that has reached the submission stage (in any journal) will be the culmination of what is often years of hard work. In my opinion there really is no need to be nasty about other people’s work. I have had several cases of bad review, two of which I found particularly vile.
I was once invited by guest editors to contribute to a special issue published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. The special issue would discuss plant-soil interactions, with special focus on field research. This kind of work had been an important aspect of my PhD research (although none of it ended up in my dissertation, in which I only placed the entomological chapters). There was plenty of data that me and my colleagues had collected from various field experiments that each centered around different hypotheses. I decided to write up a manuscript on the effects of jasmonate and salicylate activation (through exogenous application on plant communities) and its effects – via soil – on planted focal plants and plot-level insect communities. Although the results were not exactly stunning, I devoted quite some time to writing it up. I was proud of the submitted manuscript. I sometimes wonder if reviewers are aware of the impact their words can have, especially on early career researchers. Reviewer 4 hard-rejected the manuscript without the possibility for revision, stating the following in the text box on ‘Strengths of the manuscript’:
I have read and re-read this manuscript four or five times, only to conclude that it is completely devoid of any strength
Obviously, this resulted in a reject decision in that journal. Was it rightfully so? I don’t know. Maybe. I have heard from people that there are much worse papers accepted in the journal. I have since published the work in Arthropod-Plant Interactions, where it gathers dust and is completely devoid of any citations. I am nevertheless proud of it.
For another manuscript that I submitted to Functional Ecology years ago, I received two reviewer assessment, along with a rejection letter. One reviewer assessment was remarkably positive; the other one was a roundhouse kick to the face. It was clear from many statements that they had no clue what they were talking about. They were absolutely unnecessarily aggressive and this oozed out of every comment. To this very day I wonder why I deserved that kind of treatment. Now comes the funny part. The admin team of Functional Ecology offered me a referral link to an open access journal in the Wiley Group, but the link appeared to be broken. When I contacted them about this, they CC’ed me in an e-mail conversation that transferred the reviewer information to the admins of the other journal. That document contained all the information on the reviews, and – as this naughty young man found out – included the names of the reviewers. The positive reviewer was a well-established professor in the field. The second reviewer a PhD student of a well-established associate professor in the field. From what I gathered, this person was in the first or second year of their PhD and had zero publications related to the content of the paper (and still doesn’t). I decided to cancel the transfer to the open access journal and have since published my paper in Oikos, where it was met by critical, yet supportive reviewers, and got accepted after two revision rounds.
What I mean to illustrate with these examples is that it can get quite rough out there. It’s not always fun to read reviewers’ comments – especially if they get so vile. Now, I have personally reviewed papers since 2016, the year that I published my first lead-author paper. I now accept roughly 1-2 review requests per month, so I have accumulated ‘some’ experience since. (I do realize that I am still a tadpole though) Admittedly, I may have struggled to get the tone right in my first few reviews. Reviewing is a real skill. I have, however, always aimed to work with the authors to achieve a common goal; a better published end-product. The first two years I found it tough, and strange, to comment on someone else’s work while hiding in the shadows. This was around the time I had my first horrible reviewer experience. The more I thought about the giving and receiving of feedback, the more I realized that there was a way forward. Would these critics spew the same unconstructive horror if their names would have been revealed? Would I say the same things if I revealed my own on my reviews? Subconsciously, there may be a huge difference. The more I thought about it, the more I believed that I should sign my reviews.
I admit, signing my first review was scary as hell. By design, peer review is meant to be critical. It can be difficult to find the right words to bring your intentions and constructive criticism across. I still sometimes get nervous for it, for instance when I review work for people that I greatly admire for their contributions to the field, or for high-impact journals. And I think this is exactly the point. You should get nervous! When you reveal your name, you will obviously think a couple of times before you send your comments off to the authors. (Or if not you may have sociopath tendencies) So I double-triple-check what I wrote. I have noted in myself that I formulate my suggestions in a more thoughtful way. I also present my opinion as my opinion, and not as hard truth. (Hard truth in ecology?) I indicate when comments are just to satisfy personal curiosity, and when not to include them in the manuscript. I also always highlight things I really loved about the work. Whenever I give suggestions that I am not 100% sure of, I indicate this, and leave it up to the authors to judge whether the suggestion is useful or not. I think all of these reviewing ‘manners’ should of course be the standard, but I have experienced quite the opposite in many reviewers. In all cases where I received a signed review, the reviewers were constructive (but nevertheless critica). I have noticed that I valued my own reviewer etiquette much more strongly when my name was associated with the review. I think we all should sign our reviews.
Some might say that such an approach can backfire, and lead to people approaching you directly, which may lead to nasty situations. I have heard from some that they would never sign a review, because they would not dare share their critical comments under these conditions. An understandable point of view. I don’t think I have gotten less critical myself.
So I guess I have now reviewed about 30-40 signed reviews. Did I ever receive backlash? No. None. There have been some consequences of my actions, though. First, I have noticed that people have looked up my cv, probably to verify if I was an appropriate reviewer. How do I know? Well, several have added relevant work of mine to the manuscript, without me suggesting they should do so. Signing my reviews has become a form of outreach. Second, I have noticed that several authors have since followed me on Twitter, and interacted with me in the form of likes, comments and retweets (usually after publication, not before). In a sense, signing my reviews is an additional form of passive networking. I have had one instance where a person contacted me following a review. In this case, the author thanked me for the thoughtful review (long after the decision letter was sent) and indicated that after this whole pandemic situation would be behind us, they would be interested in getting together to discuss potential collaborations. If that is not a positive effect of signing reviews, I don’t know what is! So no. Never a backlash. Only positives. So I keep going as I do.
As always, this is just my personal opinion, and I am very often very wrong – but I’m not so sure about this one. I suggest people give it a try and observe the change.
Sign your reviews – make academia a friendlier place!