|Photo by Tim Mossholder on unsplash.com
A few weeks ago I tweeted this tweet:
What's the best reason why you've had a paper rejected?
I'll go first:
'There's a split-infinitive on page 6. As the paper has been so poorly proofread it's not worth my time reviewing'.
I tweeted this because I thought it was funny, but it seemed to strike a chord with the academics I follow on Twitter because soon enough my throwaway comment on the review I received on a paper had a hundred replies and 100,000 impressions.
My tweet was really about the absurdity of the peer-review process. I know the reviewer did not reject the paper because of a split-infinitive, they just didn’t like the paper and by page six were looking for a reason to reject it and a split-infinitive seemed as good a reason as any.
So that was their summary of my work, 20 words about a split-infinitive. I spent untold hours researching, and hours more writing and proofreading (not well enough apparently) the article draft. This also happened while I was precariously employed so those hours were not hours I got paid for, they were not part of any research allocation, this was research and writing done on my own time that happened at night and on the weekend while I was teaching sessionally. Yet for all of the effort, I got just 20 words back from this reviewer at a ‘gold-standard’ Q1-ranked journal.
The comments the tweet generated and DMs I received all told similar stories. It’s not about the rejection, it’s about the repercussions of the rejection and the process of producing high quality research that is a major factor of an academic’s career success.
The process of peer-review is quite simple, in theory. An anonymous reviewer with knowledge in the field assesses the work for soundness in research methodology and the work’s contribution to existing scholarship in the field. Based on that assessment, the reviewer can reject the paper for not meeting this criteria, can request revisions be made and often they will then include some recommendations to follow, or they accept the work for publication.
The majority of the time, this is how the system works. Whether a paper is rejected, revisions are requested, or it is accepted, the researcher gets helpful advice from someone else in the field to help improve the paper. At the end of the day, an article can be flatly rejected but this can still be done nicely and helpfully.
The problem is when things don’t go right, because poor reviews can be devastating for researchers as they can be unhelpful (as my tweet demonstrated) or even worse, they can be done cruelly or derogatorily – written by someone who knows they are safeguarded by anonymous review.
So what’s the takeaway from this experience and the many conversations that have happened since?
To people getting reviews for the first time, everyone gets bad reviews, and sometimes they’re not just unhelpful, they’re also scathing and callous, and contain things most people would never say in person… some of the time because HR would become involved if they did.
To people doing reviews, please remember that even rejections can be written nicely and helpfully.
We’re all pushed for time, we’re all doing reviews in what little spare time we have, but a bad review to an experienced and well-regarded professor may not matter so much. However, to a precariously employed academic who knows that every paper published puts them at least a little closer to more secure employment, a rejection is hard enough; but a review that is unhelpful in its content does not help them improve their work, and a review that is cruel can be heart-breaking.
At the end of the day we are an academy. Yes, the academy and the world are going through some tough times right now, but it doesn’t cost anything to be kind to each other, and offering a few words of encouragement when we’re doing article reviews can make a huge difference to the person on the other end.
Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research is centred on higher education with a particular focus on policy, leadership, administration, management, and inequalities within the sector. He tweets as @troyheff. You can find his websites here and here, and a link to his publications on ResearchGate.