Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What is your dream referee report?

The referee reports you get back from journals can vary greatly in quality, length, tone, and character.
Here are some broad types. I have received all types over the years.

1. Publish paper as is. A few generic positive comments about the paper.

2. Publish the paper once the following issues have been addressed.
  A long and detailed list of criticisms, suggestions, questions, and comments.

3. Send to another journal. Paper is not "important" for vague subjective reasons. No detailed criticism or discussion.

4. Send to another journal. Paper is not "important" for subjective reasons.
A long and detailed list of criticisms, suggestions, questions, and comments.

5. Reject. Superficial criticisms.

Most people might say that 1. is their dream. It certainly makes life easy. No further work is required. You get to add another line to your CV and focus on the next publon. But, did the referees actually read the paper and engage with the scientific content? If they did not will anyone else?

2. is my dream. It shows that the referees thought the paper was interesting and important enough to take the time and make the effort to read it carefully, think about it, and write out ways it could be improved. To me this is high praise.
Very rarely have I received such reports.
Does that say something about the quality of my papers or the quality of refereeing?
Seth Olsen and I did get such reports for this recent J. Chem. Phys. I was really encouraged.
But, all this constructive criticism requires more work to address.

4. Is less desirable than 1. for career advancement but is in some ways represents higher scientific praise.

What has been your experience?


  1. I agree in principle. I seem to be working in a regime where I must submit papers before I really understand what they are saying (or, rather, what I am saying). This is annoying, because I know that the paper will not be as clear or strong as it would be if I understood it better, and will not be cited as well. My most highly cited papers are those I have carefully thought through, but these were also the ones that took longest to write. When option 2 or 4 occurs, I can get some advice about what the paper is trying to say, from the perspective of another reader. I would prefer to not be working in this regime, but it seems that one has little choice in today's science unless one is already well-established.

    Interesting you should post this now, because I have just figured out that the azomethine paper I'm writing actually says something more important than I had thought, and overturns about 75 years of thinking on the origin of the bathochromic shift between diarymethanes and their analogous azomethines. This is bad, because the deadline for resubmission is Monday, but I have family obligations on Monday so it really needs to be done by tomorrow. I'm very annoyed...

    1. Hi Seth,
      You are anxious to be working in a regime where you feel you don't fully understand something you are submitting. I feel this reflects more on your tendency to perfectionism rather than a problem with the system. [For other authors there certainly may be a problem!]
      Some of whole point of refereeing should be to improve the quality of papers and give constructive feedback. They don't have to be "perfect".

      It is good that you see the perspective of others when 2. and 4. happen. That can certainly help.

    2. Hi Seth,

      With regard to the azomethine paper perhaps you should explain the situation to the editor and ask for an extension.

      On the other hand, perhaps this new idea is actually a separate publon. If it is so important it is a better to have a separate paper that has this single message.

  2. My nightmare set of referee reports (at least in my extremely limited experience) is

    Reviewer A: publish more or less as is because the author convincingly shows that interesting new situation X can be described using a simple model based on well-understood principle Y because potentially complicating factor Z doesn't actually matter.

    Reviewer B: reject because it's wrong: factor Z is important.

    Reviewer C: reject because it's trivial: the paper is just restating principle Y which everyone already knows.

    1. This does sound like a very frustrating situation.

      Clearly B and C did not understand the message of the paper. In such a situation I ask myself
      is it possible that I have not written the paper so that this message was crystal clear?

      I would then resubmit, telling the editor I have revised the paper to make the message clear, and clearly rebutting B and C.

  3. Hi Ross,
    I agree, #2 is the gold-standard. I wish I had more time to write such reviews as well. The worst are the ones with the snarky remarks or the ones where even after you've made a clear effort to address the concerns, new concerns/objections are raised that have nothing to do with either the original or revised manuscript, or ask you to do the impossible.