The truth about scientific peer review

On the whole reviewing a scientific paper is a thankless task (as is editing them, I hasten to add, still smarting from the bitter experience of facing three-feet high stacks of “manuscripts” requiring urgent attention). Peer review is entirely, ahem, voluntary although pretty much obligatory if you want your own papers reviewed, it’s unpaid and yet is a professional task. Editors expect response in a very short time and when a referee gets it wrong, all hell breaks loose (viz. the NASA arsenic bacteria story and the debacle about two molecules in a molecular cage).

In my time as a journal editor, I must have requested thousands of referee reports from hundreds of chemists across the globe, always with urgency. Reports came back randomly by mail of fax, and only in the latter months of my tenancy of those offices by email. We had referees who insisted on using snailmail, claiming that fax was accelerating the pace of life beyond that which is bearable. I hope that referee retired before Twitter came along.

In general papers were accepted or rejected, it seems on the meanest of criteria, although on the whole they were expertly assessed. Some authors were rejected by one particular referee because they used a dagger next to an author’s name to point to a footnote and this “cross” was considered offensive by the referee. Unfortunately, said referee was a leader in a small field and an almost obligatory assessor of many papers.

Anyway, enough of my reminiscing. The journal Environmental Microbiology has just published a run-down of the most amusing and perhaps offensive referees’ comments on papers it received this year.

Here’s my top ten selection from their list, check out their original item for the complete peer revelations:

  • This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.
  • I would suggest that EM set up a fund that pays for the red wine reviewers may need to digest manuscripts like this one.
  • The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.
  • Hopeless – Seems like they have been asleep and are not up on recent work on metagenomics.
  • A weak paper, poor experimental design, comparison of sequences using different primers, no statistical analysis possible, carelessly written, poorly thought through.
  • I agreed to review this Ms whilst answering e-mails in the golden glow of a balmy evening on the terrace of our holiday hotel on Lake Como. Back in the harsh light of reality in Belfast I realize that it’s just on the limit of my comfort zone and that it would probably have been better not to have volunteered.
  • The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about.
  • Reject – More holes than my grandad’s string vest!
  • The presentation is of a standard that I would reject from an undergraduate student
  • The lack of negative controls. . . . results in the authors being lost in the funhouse. Unfortunately, I do not think they even realize this.