Monday, July 4, 2011

It's easy criticise....and fun too (apparently)

This time of year many students and university lecturers spend their time preparing and submitting papers for publication. I have recently been doing just that. Now let me me say from the outset, when one puts one's work out into the public domain for review it is not unsurprising to receive comment and feedback. What I do find surprising is the nastiness that some reviewers feel the need to insert into their reviews. I don't mind being asked to make changes in any paper I submit, I don't even mind being asked to include specific references (although I am always suspicious as to the motivation of such requests - it's a great way for a reviewer to up their citation rates) but I do object to reviews that are, at best smug and patronising and at worst down right nasty.

As a reviewer I always try to make sure that any review I send out is constructive and helpful, I do not use phrases such as " This author is clearly a novice" (That's one I got) or "Clearly English is not this authors first language" (That's one that a native English speaking friend of mine received). Such comments do not serve any useful purpose. If the author is a novice, they certainly don't need to have it pointed out to them by a reviewer, and if they are not a novice, assuming they are will be seriously annoy them. Furthermore such patronising and smug statements serve to dishearten authors and under line perceptions that  the academia and publishing worlds are snobbish, exclusive and unkind. There is also a danger that any useful information that would strengthen the submitted paper is lost in the vitriol that upsets the author.

Some reviewers seem unable to differentiate between reviewing activity and marking. A journal asks its reviewers to ensure that the content, focus, subject and level of writing are appropriate for the journal - not to criticise the direction that an individuals study has taken them or to mock their approaches to investigation. It is also not the place of the reviewer to insert serious amounts of content into the paper that has been submitted, and by serious amounts I mean proposed content that increases the word count of the submitted paper from the required 5000 words, to well over 8500 as recently happened to me!

I must admit to being at something of a loss to account for why some reviewers (and it's not all of them by any means) would chose to behave like this. Most reviewers are authors as well  one would hope that they would treat prospective authors as they themselves would wish to be treated, and there are, indeed some extremely helpful and supportive reviewers who make the publishing process a pleasure and a learning experience. I suspect that the double blind system that most nursing journals operate in which the author and the reviewers are blinded to each other means that there is little or no obligation for the reviewers to take responsibility for the comments they make.

I would argue that journals should consider training their reviewers to an industry agreed standard or, failing that, invite author feedback on the helpfulness and usefulness of the review. I would also tell prospective authors not to be destroyed by an mean or nasty reviewers that they come across, it will only be a matter of time before the reviewer will have a paper of theirs reviewed by someone as deeply unpleasant as themselves.