Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Weekend Thirsty: Who the Fuck was Reader B?

I’ve just finished editing a collected volume, and reading a flock of referee’s reports at once has confirmed my opinion of my colleagues in the profession. 

That is, about 95% of them are hardworking, sensible, helpful, and even when they feel something is not ready for publication, they do their best to assist the author with constructive suggestions on how it could be revised.

And then there’s Reader B.  About 5% of referees are Reader B. 

Reader B is a dick.  He is the academic equivalent of an internet troll, secure in his anonymity, getting whatever little pleasure his twisted, malice-scarred, putrescent psyche can experience by writing the most mean-spirited, insulting, soul-searing referee’s reports he can devise. Then he goes off, cackling, to torture his own students and colleagues, God help them.

I think it would be excellent to have a place where we can anonymously post the most horrible bits of the referee’s reports we’ve received, by way of sharing the misery. 

So, my Thirsty: 

What sentences from referee’s reports have seared an irreparable hole in your self-confidence?  Which comments were so horrible that years later, you can still quote them word for word?

I’ll begin: 

Probably true, but why publish an idea any competent undergraduate could generate in a term paper?

Thanks, Reader B, and I hope your wife runs off with the plumber.

Mildred from Medicine Hat


  1. From a reader

    "Results of this research could undermine the economic stability of the semiconductor industry and should therefore not be funded."

  2. During grad school, I took a workshop (independent from my university program but related to my discipline), and the workshop leader told me I would never work professionally. Given that I had been working professionally since before I finished my undergrad degree, it didn't phase me.

  3. "Sources are missing citations."

    No, they're not, you rotting maggot! Every single source used was cited. Thanks for making me waste two hours of my life searching for a sentence without a citation.

  4. Not a reader's comment, but a comment passed by an advanced graduate student in a department seminar where a fellow grad student was presenting some work in progress:

    "I think that you make some useful points, but your paper has all the dramatic impact of a wet noodle."

    This sort of comment was par for the course from this guy. He was very smart, and often had useful points to make, but it was all wrapped up in such a hideous package of bloviating condescension that half the room went into a fit of eye-rolling whenever he made a contribution.

    1. If it's any consolation, I tell my students not to be cute like this. Astronomy is a small field, so people tend to be collegial, at least to each others' faces. It's very much a global village: don't be the village idiot. Also, be kind to the people you meet on your way up, since you'll meet them all again on your way down...

  5. Linus Pauling got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, for figuring out how atoms bond together to make molecules. (Long story.) One day, he gets a referee report for one of his papers that complains that what he's found is impossible, since atoms cannot bond with asymmetric spin states. (Again, long story.) Pauling writes to the editor of the journal, "See here, you're using this fellow for a referee, and he doesn't understand quantum mechanics! He'd tell you that a molecule of sodium chloride couldn't exist."

    As I tell students, you can do that, if you're Linus Pauling. For the rest of us: don't get mad at the referee. Explain, calmly and professionally, why you agree, except that it's like this...And never, ever, EVER say ANYTHING about the referees' MOTHERS.

  6. This sounds about right - about 95% of the time I am reader A, but 5% of the time I am reader B. Sometimes I find a paper so poorly written that it deserves the smackdown. I hope I manage to remain professional when I do so, but I sometimes think that one important contribution I can make to the field is to keep pompous bs from cluttering up the literature. I once even got a note of thanks from an editor (a famous bigwig) for pointing out that the analysis I had reviewed was Bullshit, and I have to say I respect the author for presumably accepting the criticism and not just turning around to publish it elsewhere (reviewer A thought it was simply maahvelous!).


  7. Grant Reviewer B: Given the novelty of the experiments proposed in Specific Aim 2, the applicants should have included a contingency plan due to the likely event that they will encounter problems. Lack of said plan erodes confidence in the applicants' ability to carry out any of the aims.

    Our rebuttal: We quite agree with the need for a backup plan, which is why we had devoted pages 12, 13, 14, and half of 15 to alternative approaches, not to mention the preliminary data to prove the feasibility of those same approaches.

    Manuscript Reviewer B: This submission is unacceptable. It lacks novelty and may even be plagiarised. For example, I recall seeing Figure 5 in a previous article.

    ​Our rebuttal: We would have appreciated an actual citation for where the reviewer thinks Figure 5 (or anything else) has been published, for as far as we know, it never has been. We had indeed submitted a similar (but not identical) figure elsewhere, namely, in the preliminary data section of a grant application. Those results were from a much smaller pilot study that one skeptical reviewer demanded in order to demonstrate that what we proposed could actually be done, as it was a completely new line of experimentation at the time. We now wish to publish the full study resulting from that grant. We have apparently had the good fortune to draw the same reviewer again.

    Grant Reviewer B: Preliminary data demonstrate that the proposed experiments are feasible. In fact, sufficient data have been collected to merit a short publication, and we congratulate the applicants on their article currently in press. However, it is a shame that more data were not obtained such that a second and/or more lengthy publication would have been submitted.

    Our rebuttal: We quite agree that gathering more data is a worthy goal, but we currently lack funds. It is our understanding that NIT does not award "retroactive grants" for work already published. We have therefore taken the bold step of applying for funding before we do or publish any further work on this project.

    Reader B subtext: I don't like you and/or your submission, but most importantly, nobody gets the prize on the first try, so get in line.

    Rebuttal subtext: You used up our "first wish" on criticism that was untrue on its face or simply ridiculous. You owe us another wish.

    1. Damn. I won't even accuse a student of plagiarism without proof (being able to point to the lifted text elsewhere.) But a colleague?!

    2. I've had that review and been rejected for lack of novelty when trying to publish the full study. It makes me wonder if people think that nobody does actual long term research projects, just tiny little pilot projects.

    3. If you propose a study that is already known to be feasible, it won't be novel. If you propose something that truly hasn't been done, you'll have to do so many pilot studies to prove feasibility that they won't give you money to do the real study because it just repeats those old experiments. If you don't publish some of those pilot data, they won't give you money for the real study because you haven't published in a while, and then to ice the cake, at the end, they'll reject publishing the full study for lack of novelty.

      Kate, it's not just a colleague, but an anonymous colleague and likely a competitor at another institution, whose massive lab sends post-docs to the cardiac ward with alarming regularity. Extra bonus points if your hypotheses, if they turn out to be true, will render worthless the diagnostic/therapeutic device(s) they're developing with industry funding. If you receive an 'unfair' review from this investigator, your recourse is to revise and resubmit, or not.

  8. Other notes for reviewers:

    - Even if a paper disagrees with your political views, try not to describe it as "totalitarian propaganda".
    - If you insist that a paper cite more than two papers by any one other scholar, you have just outed yourself.
    - A failure to cite a paper you think is important may be "careless" but it is unlikely to be "deliberately dishonest", even if you personally wrote the missing paper.

    And so on ...

  9. Mildred, you've reminded me of another.

    Manuscript Reviewer A: Authors have made substantial revisions, resulting in a paper that is significantly more compelling than the original submission. Figure legends are more readable and the results section is now, dare I say, a pleasure to parse, which is no mean feat for this dense subject matter. Several new discussion paragraphs dealing with another group's peripherally related work at first seem speculative and of questionable worth, but because they draw new conclusions and suggest new experiments, they do have some value and at the very least don't detract from the rest of the paper. Acceptable as currently written.

    Manuscript Reviewer B: Authors have made almost no revisions beyond fixing grammatical mistakes. They have cited only two of the four seminal papers I directed them towards, and rather than delving into the substance of those papers they refocus the discussion back onto their own work and work that hasn't even been published yet. Changing recommendation from 'acceptable with revisions' to 'reject' with the comment that the authors should read all four papers I suggested to see what a real scientific publication looks like.