in praise of the referee (or not)

While I was editing our “famous” In praise of the referee paper—well, famous for being my most rejected paper ever!, with one editor not even acknowledging receipt!!—for the next edition of the ISBA Bulletin—where it truly belongs, being in fine a reply to Larry’s tribune therein a while ago—, Dimitris Politis had written a column for the IMS Bulletin—March 2013 Issue, page 11—on Refereeing and psychoanalysis.

Uh?! What?! Psychoanalysis?! Dimitris’ post is about referees being rude or abusive in their report, expressing befuddlement at seeing such behaviour in a scientific review. If one sets aside cases of personal and ideological antagonisms—always likely to occur in academic circles!—, a “good” reason for referees to get aggressively annoyed to the point of rudeness is sloppiness of one kind or another in the paper under review. One has to remember that refereeing is done for free and with no clear recognition in the overwhelming majority of cases, out of a sense of duty to the community and of fairness for having our own papers refereed. Reading a paper where typos abound, where style is so abstruse as to hide the purpose of the work, where the literature is so poorly referenced as to make one doubts the author(s) ever read another paper, the referee may feel vindicated by venting his/her frustration at wasting one’s time by writing a few vitriolic remarks.  Dimitris points out this can be very detrimental to young researchers. True, but what happened to the advisor at this stage?! Wasn’t she/he supposed to advise her/his PhD student not only in conducting innovative research but also in producing intelligible outcome and in preparing papers suited for the journal it is to be submitted to..?! Being rude and aggressive does not contribute to improve the setting, no more than headbutting an Italian football player helps in winning the World Cup, but it may nonetheless be understood without resorting to psychoanalysis!

Most interestingly, this negative aspect of refereeing—that can be curbed by posterior actions of AEs and editors—would vanish if some of our proposals were implemented, incl. making referee’ reports part of the referee’s publication list, making those reports public as comments on the published paper (if published), and creating repositories or report commons independent from journals…

3 Responses to “in praise of the referee (or not)”

  1. A related discussion from an ex-editor of JASA and Biometrics

    Review times in statistical journals: tilting at windmills?
    Raymond J. Carroll

    Click to access carroll.pdf

  2. Robin MOrris Says:

    The problem with vitriolic reviews would go away if journal editors would read papers before sending them out to reviewers. Papers with the problems you describe could be very easily identified at that stage, and the authors asked to revise and resubmit.

    I get the impression now that editors are not willing to reject papers on their own say so, without the backup of referees reports.

    • Thanks Robin. As a former editor of Series B, I agree that editors should have a more aggressive rejection policy at the start. However, it all depends on the topic and on the volume of submission. Like, it would be difficult to implement on say the Annals of Statistics if editors had to read carefully every submitted paper, as the poor quality may stem from a poor proof: hard to spot on the spot! Or when the breadth of the journal is such that the editor cannot be expected to be knowledgeable in all topics…

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