I Still Hate Your Paper: Dr. No and the Editors that are ruining Peer Review

A year ago I did a post on scientific peer review…have things gotten any better?

No. From everyone I have talked to, the answer would seem to be quite the contrary–things continue to move in the wrong direction.

If you are not a scientist, but care about stem cell research, why should you care if peer review is flawed? Because the problems in peer review significantly slow down the field!

A new article just came out on this that is interesting.

The Scientist has published a few pieces in 2010 on the trouble with peer review including my personal favorite: I Hate Your Paper.

That article rings so true as do the quotes from the scientists.

Peer review in the stem cell field and the IPS cell subfield in particular is probably more cutthroat than average.

It is not unusual for a reviewer to ask for something simply for the purpose of either killing or delaying a paper. Why? Either they are a competitor or a friend of a competitor or maybe they are simply a pain in the neck busybody.

Then you read your email from the editor and see that the editor lets them get away with it without even a twinkle of any input from their own thinking.

Why?

Maybe the editor is intimidated by the reviewer because the reviewer is a bigshot? Maybe the reviewer is one who publishes high impact papers in their journal? Maybe the editor is thinking–what would happen if the reviewer saw that paper published despite their negative review? They’ll be mad at me.  Maybe the editor just doesn’t care?  I don’t know.

We ruefully joke from experience that there is about a 30% chance of getting ‘Dr. No’ as one of your reviewers. Submit to a high impact journal and the odds double to 60%. If you are ‘lucky’ you might even get 2 Dr. No’s as reviewers at high impact journals. If you are a scientist trying to publish these days, then you know who Dr. No is. You might have a different name for them though, Dr. #&$^#%#$^ .

This is the reviewer who asks you to generate new knockout mice in order to publish your paper. Never mind that it will take 2 years. Or he asks you to use published knockout mice since they are “available”, but they are only available from his lab and when you subsequently ask him for the mice, he says “no” or doesn’t respond to your email at all.

This is the reviewer who says your paper is terrible, but then gives comments that are impossible to address because they make no sense.

This is the reviewer who says your paper is not novel because she found another paper published on a different topic a decade ago, but one of the words in the title is the same.

This is the reviewer who has not read your paper and makes this obvious by asking you to do something that is already in the paper.

This is the reviewer who hates your paper but makes no real comments at all so there is nothing for you to address to try to improve your paper.

This is the reviewer who uses 3 full single-spaced pages for 30-50 comments including throwing the kitchen sink at you.

This is the reviewer that says they are annoyed they even had to waste their time reviewing a paper as bad as this one.

This is the reviewer who ‘helpfully’ says all the experiments in your paper really should have been done  using model system X while you used system Y. It would take years of course to repeat everything using the different system, but it would have made your paper a lot better and you would have done it that way from the beginning if only you weren’t so stupid.

This is the reviewer who is a competitor of yours and makes that obvious by trashing your paper in so many special ways but then also says you should have cited the 3 recent papers by Dr. No’s lab. Subtle, huh?

It’s bad out there, but not all bad.

A toast to the many wonderful reviewers out there who do a great job and to the editors who thoughtfully and assertively handle the review process. Without you, things would be even worse.

In terms of potential solutions, I’d be open to hearing them in the comments section. The main idea proposed to address the problems with peer review is open review, where all parties involved know the identities of each other. The worry about such a system is that it could lead to retaliation by angry manuscript writers against peer reviewers. That’s a real concern, but open review is an idea worth serious consideration. Even with “anonymous” peer review, it seems a large number of people are convinced they can guess who their reviewers were and sometimes already taken revenge (probably most often on the wrong people).

5 Comments


  1. i have a spinal cord injury and have gotten to review some grants along with researchers, i was harsh on some reviews and not comfortable about it until i read the review by the researchers, they are not kind at all and hold nothing back.

    having said that i agree with much of what you said, it’s very political and senior researchers stick together no matter if it’s junk science


  2. There has been a lot of talk about open-access journals in the last few years. Perhaps those would be less subject to peer-review skuldudgery, by virtue of having less vested economic interests?


  3. take advantage of the internet. journals like nature will be meaningless in twenty years once a space is created for scientists to post high impact papers that are then assessed by the community at large. How to rate whether a paper is high profile? easy — look at the times it was cited or given a good review. Why leave it up to 2 reviewers and an editor when 500 academics in the field can see it and give their two cents. XXXX, we could even have a 1-10 rating system and at the end of the year, the papers with the most reviews and highest ratings will be the best papers. Not just the ones that get into Nature because you know the editor!! (Note, this comment was edited)


  4. It’s good for patient advocates like myself to read your blog and get insights on the most current science. I’m disappointed to hear that Dr. No exists when good people with terminal diseases are kept waiting for treatments or cures. I thought that basically the hold up was funding–but to learn that there’s politics at play really upsets me.
    What can the patient advocates do to help speed up papers getting published (seems like an old idea–too slow) so that information is shared more quickly.

    Your blog has got to stay active–gives good information-and hopefully will be a model for other researchers.

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