Can bad reviews be useful?

Everyone who publishes has had bad experiences with peer review. Reviewers that miss the point of what you are trying to say, or just hate your paper.

Case in point is some work on tropical logging we just got published in Forest Ecology and Management (see my blog post on it here and the paper here). I don’t have loads of experience with peer review, but now have 3 papers under my belt, one currently in review and I have reviewed about 10 papers in total. One of the reviews I got for this paper was the worst I have ever been given. I’m not going to go into detail, but here are some choice quotes:

Unfortunately, This analysis does not bring any new results in comparison with others recently published synthesis…

Finally the assess of the impact of logging on tree species richness presented in this study is meaningless…

The straight forward conclusion of the authors does not bring much to the debate already closed….

Now. The the first two comments may or may not be true. The thing that annoyed me more than anything was the last comment. Debate in science should never be closed. Scientists should not provide a united front when there is contradictory evidence. If you disagree with a study either (a) re-analyse the data of the paper you don’t like and write a letter to the editor, (b) produce another piece of work testing the same hypotheses or (c) be really radical and offer to write a joint paper with the authors of the work you disagree with. Blocking the paper from publication should not be an option.

The review I got is nothing compared to what some others have had to deal with, but it was annoying to have my path blocked by a reviewer who didn’t want my work published simply because my results didn’t fit their world view.

However, I have taken some positives lessons from this. Firstly, try to be aware of your own biases when reviewing someone else’s work. Secondly, be fair and be careful with what you say. If you don’t like a paper don’t go on and on about it, remember that someone spent months of their life on that work. We constructive and concise. Thirdly, when you are writing a paper don’t go out of your way to be controversial. I think some of our drafts of the paper came off as a bit combative and thus produced this reaction. Getting this reaction from a reviewer probably means that some readers will have similar reactions. However, don’t shy away from controversy either. If your results support a controversial hypothesis don’t let people who disagree with your view of things block you from publication.

5 thoughts on “Can bad reviews be useful?

  1. I always argue that for every bad reviewer, there’s a big pile of bad readers – in the sense that they will have the same negative reaction (no matter how misguided) as the reviewer did. So are “bad” reviews useful? Of course – they help you forestall one particular misguided reaction. (They’re still galling though). Some more thoughts on this here:

    1. I agree with that sentiment completely. I am sure that trying to clarify points for your ‘bad’ reviewer is helpful in that sense.

      However, my latest manuscript annoyed lots of people for being a bit opinionated with different people objecting to different elements. In the end I feel like it has suffered a bit and ended up (in my opinion) being a bit duller for it. Any thoughts on this?

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