Hostility in reviews 

An author’s experience of peer review

Mounir AdjradMounir Adjrad is currently a researcher within the Engineering and Design department at London South Bank University (LSBU). His current research interests are Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology exploitation for biomedical engineering and communication applications. He has a multidisciplinary research experience in industry and academic institutions working on topics such as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), satellite engineering, radar and transport engineering applications. 

Reviewers need to remember that they are on a mission, one of “evaluating” others’ work. Simply stated, to evaluate is to examine the worth of the author’s/authors’ efforts. The review output, besides the suggestion of whether the work is (or is not) acceptable for publication, needs to state whether the author is encouraged to continue his/her effort, list areas for making improvements and explain how these improvements could be implemented. The review report needs to be positive, in a broad sense, and the end message to the author should be as far as possible from a savage one.

On that latter point, a couple of years ago while working in industry, I submitted an article to a specialized technology magazine. The published work presented the validation results of a developed product with quantified efficiency figures. The reviews referred to the presented figures as being the result of “black magic” and the product was called “snake oil”. It was obvious that the reviewers did not believe the reported figures, but the review fell short of explaining rational reasons behind this sceptical attitude. The only explanation the reviewers could offer was the fact they had dealt with previous similar claims from other companies but when the results were scrutinised it turned out that the figures had been falsified.

Thankfully, the review process was an open one, which allowed me to identify who the reviewers were, and perhaps this was the only useful information I could take back from those reviews. It turned out that these reviewers were involved in consultancy work for companies that were already marketing a similar product (function-wise). The article was published following a reply to the editor highlighting the issue with the choice of the reviewers and a request for a second review of the article, with impartial reviewing panel.

The issue of hostility in reviews was addressed in the column On Civility in Reviewing by Robert J. Sternberg in Observer, 2002. He rightly pointed out that hostile and savage reviews violate the fundamental ethics Golden Rule: to act toward others as we would have them act toward us. This brings me to conclude that any hostility expressed in any review, regardless of the field of research, is totally unacceptable.

But how do we prevent the occurrence of negative reviews? I believe this is a joint effort between editors and reviewers: the editor needs to address the question of whether the reviewers have subject matter expertise and experience qualifying them to thoughtfully evaluate the work; whereas the reviewers need to honestly assess whether they can provide a fair and unbiased review of the work based solely on its merits. Specifically, for the reviewers, I believe a key element in avoiding the hostility trap is to assess, at an early stage of the review process, whether they will be able to evaluate the work with an open mind, and they should decline the review if they feel negatively predisposed to the submitted work.

In conclusion, across academic generations and disciplines, there is a cycle of negative reviews that needs to be broken to make peer review a healthy process.

P.S. the “snake oil” product and the company behind it are both enjoying great success.

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