Shame on the Scientific Journal “Environmental Microbiology”

The current Harper’s reprints Environmental Microbiology’s annual list of selected peer reviewer comments on submitted articles, featuring such snark as “this manuscript has nearly sucked the will to live out of me” and “This is an interesting manuscript, not because of its results, but because of its complete ignorance of the scientific process”. The proper role of a scientific journal editor is to delete such comments from the review, rather than lionize them in a year end collection that will only serve to stimulate more such remarks in the future.

Nasty remarks impede the scientific enterprise by crushing the spirit of very bright people who take such remarks personally and thereby do not revise and resubmit quality scientific work. And such people are not a random sample of all authors: Women scientists are particularly likely to retreat when faced with an abusive review. Whether they intend it or not, the editors of this journal are engaged in institutional sexism as well as bad manners.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Shame on the Scientific Journal “Environmental Microbiology””

  1. Not just delete from the review, but counsel the reviewer and consider taking him or her off the list. I well recognize the impulse to write something like this when I’m served a particularly bad piece of junk to review and anonymity to hide behind. But someone who gives in to it is not only personally cowardly and shameful, but manifests a misunderstanding of the duties he’s accepted in undertaking the task, and puts his scientific judgment in question.

  2. Do the authors get to see these comments on their submissions, or are they just for the editors?

  3. Authors receive the reviews (and I have seen many a nasty comment in them over the years). Many journals also allow a reviewer to make private remarks to the editor (which, as an editor, I have usually found consistently respectful even when the review is not)

  4. Peer review isn’t sacred; it should be studied, as it introduces conservative biases into the published corpus as well as weeding out rubbish. Compare the way double-blind clinical trials can’t get rid of placebo effects. Giving patients a sugar pill and telling them so has effects. So the placebo baseline in a clinical trial is not the equivalent of doing nothing.

    Scientific publication without peer review is possible. The huge xarchiv publishing database in maths and physics doesn’t use it, only a weaker system of endorsements – a sort of sponsorship. Formally the papers are preprints, prior to publication in peer-reviewed journals; but not always. Famously, the proof of Poincar√ɬ©’s conjecture by the eccentric genius Grigori Perelman has never been submitted for peer review: he says it’s pointless. Either another mathematician will show his proof is invalid, or the proof holds up against the scrutiny of the entire community of topologists. Either way, peer review by a tiny subset of that community is irrelevant.

  5. Speaking as someone who has given fairly tough, but eminently, even elaborately respectful peer reviews in the past, I agree with the condemnation of the destructive and juvenile tone seen in the quotations. This is especially the case if the reviews were shown to the authors, but the tone would be completely inappropriate even if privately addressed to the editor (and it is standard in my field for there to be a place on the web form for comments to be privately addressed to the editor). More than being a mistake, comments are these are also likely to be relatively ineffective, as they make the reviewer appear unreasonable and possibly unreasoning, and so their judgment is easier to dismiss. I suppose the best outcome would be if the obnoxious comments were privately addressed to the editors, and the editors correctly interpreted those comments are demonstrating that the reviewer in question was an asshole, their opinions should be discounted, and they should not be used as a reviewer in the future.

    I would disagree with Keith’s imputation of sexism here. Keith has no idea of the genders involved, something the reviewers almost certainly did know. Furthermore, while it seems likely that women are on average more likely to be especially damaged by this sort of personal attack, there will be numerous exceptions in both directions, and the problem is the nature of the offense, not the fact that one part of the community is relatively more likely to be sensitive to it.

  6. Such reviews are bad manners, but calling them sexist is just silly. Part of living in the big bad world is being able to deal with rudeness. If a nasty comment by a reviewer is going to crush someone’s spirit, then he or she really isn’t cut out for academia. In fact, someone so thin skinned should probably consider psychological counseling.

  7. Warren,
    I otherwise agree with you, but I’m on Keith’s side with regard to your last paragraph.

    Keith called it institutional sexism, not sexism simpliciter. The distinction is important. “Institutional sexism” or “institutional racism” are not moral judgments on an individual–both can exist even when all the individual actors are blameless, or even when the gender or race of the victim is unknown. Consider the frequent workplace custom that men have of putting pictures of their family on their desk. This is a handy way for men to signal that they are not sexual harassers. But–at least until recently–it made gay co-workers a bit uneasy. Pro-woman? Maybe. Institutional homophobia? Also maybe.

    I’m not happy with the way that morally-charged words like “racism” and “sexism” are used in situations where moral judgments are inappropriate. But we live our lives with the language we have, not the language we wish we had.

  8. My Ph.D. advisor used to get really put out by unpleasant reviews. I was always pleased with myself at how above-it-all I generally felt, although even my teeth would grate when reviewers would start making unkind character attributions about the authors (us) based on the manuscript. But the main thing that was annoying about it was that it got in the way of revising the manuscript – I would have to wait for my PI to come down off his umbrage, and then talk through what an asshole the reviewer was (and who it probably was) before we could get around to settling on the revision. It made the whole process longer and more unpleasant.

    Then I went to my postdoc, where my PI proudly emails his witheringly, pointlessly nasty reviews to all of us in the lab as if they were something to be proud of. And I’ve found that in my new sub-field, this kind of nastiness is much more common. Honestly, I don’t know why people think this is an effort worth their while. When I write a review, I express an opinion about novelty/impact, point out methodological problems if I find them, point out invalid inferrential logic if I find it, and try to make constructive suggestions about what would make the manuscript better. That’s what a review should be, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not my job to decide, ultimately, what should be printed, and it’s certainly not my job to run people out of science with verbal abuse. I mean, I really don’t get it.

  9. Hey I agree, the comments authors receive should not demoralize them rather positive criticism would be much appreciated. Recently, I have noticed large number of publishers charging money for publishing manuscripts in the so-called peer reviewed journals, particularly in developing nations. Are the stalwarts of science looking into this? This is a serious issue as the charm and quality of science is fading and a wrong scientific culture is being nurtured. It would be really good if some committee is set up at a global level to monitor and check these wrong happenings.

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