In “Rookie review” (Nature, October 12, 2011), Virginia Gewin reports on the dirt plops of peer review:
Perhaps the biggest misconception about reviewing is that referees haven’t done their job if they can’t come up with enough criticisms. Overzealous reviewers may even allow criticism to devolve into cattiness in their eagerness not to be seen as a pushover. Postdocs are particularly prone to such errors, say some manuscript editors — perhaps because they are subconsciously trying to prove their own worth, or are used to journal-club sessions designed to pick papers apart. A lot of new reviewers simply can’t write a review that essentially says ‘this is a great paper’ — which is perfectly valid, as long as reviewers summarize the key points and express in detail why the techniques and conclusions are sound,” says Kulp. Hemai Parthasarathy, a former manuscript editor at Nature and PLoS Biology and now a senior partner at Torch Communications in San Francisco, California, advises that reviewers “start from a place of respect”, and recognize that the author put a lot of work into the manuscript.”
The most frustrating rookie offence, however, might be making contradictory assessments in a single review. Kulp says it drives editors “insane” when a reviewer submits highly critical comments with a recommendation to “publish as is”. Such reviews are most common when journals allow reviewers to submit one set of comments to the editor and another to authors. Contrasting reviews create problems for everybody concerned, says Parthasarathy. At best, they make the editor’s decision harder; at worst, the catty ones can start a feud. Reviewers should never write anything that would be damaging if their identity were revealed.
Absolutely! If a rival is going to accuse you of having an affair with his cat, the most important thing you want is for him to publish his accusation on the worldwide Web under his own name.
None of this can address the underlying serious problems with peer review (mediocrity’s triumph), but it’s a good read with some useful advice.