The five stages of peer review grief

In the midst of all the good things that have happened to me recently, I also got some rather less cheerful news: a couple of papers I submitted way back in the middle of last year finally arrived back in my in-box covered with a large dollop of the peer review equivalent of red ink attached. Even in my nascent academic career, this isn’t the first time I’ve got a negative review – indeed, by sending something out to peer review you’re inviting criticism, in a way – but it’s never a particularly pleasant experience, especially when you’re talking about the end product of four years of struggle and head-scratching.

Despite the numerous distractions of the last three or four weeks, the reviews, and what I can or want to do in response to them, have been fairly continuously in the back of my mind, and my attitude has gone through a number of distinct phases:

  • Shock and Denial.
    (Skim numbly through the decision letters. Words like ‘reject’ and ‘major revisions’ stand out in burning characters on the page)

    They can’t be that bad, can they? I can’t have patiently waited for 8 months just to get told to get lost, can I? Perhaps it’s just one particularly negative reviewer, or there’s just one or two points of contention which I can defend robustly and win the editor over.
    (Looks at length of attached commentary. Notes that Associate Editor is someone quite prominent in the area I’ve been working on)

    Oh dear, maybe not…



  • Anger
    (Finally muster will to confront the reviews themselves. It takes a while, not so much because there’s so many comments – although there are – but because every other point raised provokes much snarling and spluttering )

    I don’t say that at all! Did they actually read the $&*@*y papers? How is that relevant? Since when has ‘I don’t believe this’ been scientific refutation? Oh, yeah, because the previous model had no problems at all!

  • Doubt
    (The white hot fire of anger is extinguished, and the little demons of self-reflection start to make themselves heard).

    Maybe I have got it wrong. Maybe I just got too carried away because my data seemed to say something new and different and exciting. These guys are the experts, who am I to question their opinion on their home turf?

  • Depression.
    (Realise that at least 50% of the reviews are basically personal opinion, or defensiveness regarding previously published data which I’ve called into question )

    No-one found anything wrong with my data, they just don’t like my interpretation of them. But the prevailing ideas which I’m questioning have flaws and gaps too. Why can’t they let alternatives be presented to the wider community? Am I ever going to get my ideas published?

    (Realise that I’m starting to sound like a crank)

    Bugger.

  • Acceptance.
    (Scientific idealism cedes to cold hard reality)

    I have some interesting things to say, and some good data which supports them (and shows that some old data have been misinterpreted). But the way I went about talking about them was a little naïve; I’m an outsider in that particular research community, and I just appeared with my new data and new models, and rewrote stuff that they accept as given. This is not the way to get even potentially sympathetic people on your side (although it is obviously not popular with certain people, in the past similar tectonic models to mine have been published, I just have more supporting data). I need to be less assertive about what I think it all means, presenting my ideas more as something to talk about rather than The Last Word On The Subject (which is what I was trying to do, but I obviously got a bit carried away).

So, it looks like I have some rewriting to do – although I was given the option of publishing my data (the first paper) shorn of much in the way of interpretation (the second paper), I don’t think I’m prepared to give up on getting a slightly more high-impact paper out there just yet. I suppose the lesson of all this is that if you want to change peoples minds, you often have to go for the war of attrition rather than the precision strike.

Categories: academic life, publication

Comments (4)

  1. This is brilliant!
    I’ve emailed it, with URL, to many of my fellow scientist friends.
    What can you do when Referrees simultaneously say:
    (1) This is obviously nonsensical and wrong;
    (2) This is well-known in the literature;
    (3) The Theory is good, but the evidence is clearly wrong;
    (4) The evidence is interesting, but the Theory is obviously wrong.
    I’ve been a referree, have been refereed and published many times, and have been refereed and rejected many times. It seems so random, when you’re on the receiving end of the process!

  2. The attitude one is supposed to adopt is to take the criticisms at face-value, and not so personally. Difficult, of course. And harder when the criticisms seem ill-thought out, off-the-cuff and dashed off after the barest perusal of the manuscript.
    One side note about reading scientific papers:
    1) Undergraduates – they only read the Abstract. Too busy to read anything else.
    2) Grad students – they only look at the Figures. After all, that’s the only part of the paper that matters.
    3) Postdocs – they only read the Methods. They want to know if they can use the technique for their own research. That’s why they’re reading the paper in the first place.
    4) PI’s – they only look at the References – to make sure their own work is cited.
    My point? Make sure you’ve referenced everyone.

  3. Chris Rowan says:

    I completely agree – I was trying to chart my mental journey from taking it personally (which is an inescapable knee-jerk reaction – does it get any easier?) to getting a more balanced perspective on where the reviewers where coming from.

  4. Cheryline Lawson says:

    Great article. I agree with all that you said in your article. There is no way you can prepare for grief no matter how the person died, but each individual is different and it depends on their coping skills and personality as well as a bunch of other factors. Thought I would put my two-sense in. thanks for your article.