Posting my peer reviews on Publons and a few notes about reviewing

Publons is a service that currates your peer review work. In a perfect world this would be done by publishers – they just forward your reviews with some standard meta-data. This would be useful when one paper is reviewed multiple times, as well as identifying good vs. poor reviewers. I forget where I saw the suggestion recently (maybe on the orgtheory or scatterplot blog), but someone mentioned it would be nice if you submit your paper to a different journal to forward your previous reviews at your discretion. I wouldn’t mind that at all, as oft the best journals will reject for lesser reasons because they can be more selective. (Also I’ve gotten copy-paste same reviews from different journals, even though I have updated the draft to address some of the comments. Forwarding would allow me to address those comments directly before the revise-resubmit decision.)

I’ve posted all of my reviews so far, but they are only public if the paper is eventually accepted. So here you can see my review for the recent JQC article Shooting on the Street: Measuring the Spatial Influence of Physical Features on Gun Violence in a Bounded Street Network by Jie Xu and Elizabeth Griffiths.

I’ve done my fair share of complaining about reviews before, but I don’t think the whole peer-review process is fatally flawed despite its low reliability. People take peer review a bit too seriously at times – but that is a problem for most academics in general. Even if you think your idea is not getting a fair shake, just publish it yourself on your website (or places like SSRN and ArXiv). This of course does not count towards things like tenure – but valuing quantity over quality is another separate problem currently in academia.

In the spirit of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, here are a two main points I try to abide by when I review papers.

  • be as specific as possible in your critique

There is nothing more frustrating than getting a vague critique (the paper has multiple mispellings and grammar issues). A frequent one I have come across (both in reviews of my papers and seeing comments others have made on papers I’ve reviewed) is in the framing of the paper – a.k.a. the literature review. (Which makes sending the paper to multiple journals so frustrating, you will always get more arbitrary framing debates each time with new reviewers.)

So for a few examples:

  • (bad) The literature review is insufficient
  • (good) The literature review skips some important literature, see specifically (X, 2004; Y, 2006; Z, 2007). The description of (A, 2000) is awkward/wrong.
  • (bad) The paper is too long, it can be written in half the length
  • (better) The paper could be shortened, section A.1 can be eliminated in my opinion, and section A.2 can be reduced to one paragraph on X.

Being specific provides a clear path for the author to correct what you think, or at least respond if they disagree. The “you can cut the paper in half” I don’t even know how to respond to effectively, nor the generic complaint about spelling. One I’ve gotten before is “x is an innapropriate measure” with no other detail. This is tricky because I have to guess why you think it is innapropriate, so I have to make your argument for you (mind read) and then respond why I disagree (which obviously I do, or I wouldn’t have included that measure to begin with). So to respond to a critique I at first have to critique my own paper – maybe this reviewer is more brilliant than I thought.

Being specific I also think helps cut down on arbitrary complaints that are arguable.

  • provide clear signals to the editor, both about main critiques and the extent to which they can be addressed

Peer review has two potential motivations, one is a gate-keeper and one is to improve the draft. Often times arbitrary advice by reviewers intended for the latter is not clearly delineated in the review, so it is easily confused for evidence pertinent to the gate-keeper function. I’ve gotten reviews of 20 bullet points or 2,000 words that make it seem like a poor paper due to sheer length of the comment, but the majority are minor points or arbitrary suggestions. Longer reviews actually suggest the paper is better – if there is something clearly wrong you can say it in a much shorter space.

Gabriel Rossman states these different parts of peer review a bit more succintly than me:

You need to adopt a mentality of “is it good how the author did it” rather than “how could this paper be made better”

I think this is a good quip to follow. I might add “don’t sweat the small stuff” to that as well. Some editors will read the paper and reviews and make judgement calls – but some editors just follow the reviewers blindly – so I worry with the 20 bullet point minor review that it unduly influenced a reject decision. I’m happy to respond to the bullets, and happy you took the time, but I’m not happy about you (the reviewer) not giving clear advice to the editor of the extent to which I can address those points.

I still give advice about improving the manuscript, but I try to provide clear signals to the editor about main critiques, and I also will explicitly state whether they can be addressed. The “can be addressed” is not for the person writing the paper – it is for the editor making the decision for whether to revise-and-resubmit! The main critiques in my experience will either entail 2-3 main points (or none at all for some papers). I also typically say when things are minor and put them in a separate section, which editors can pretty much ignore.

Being a quantitative guy, the ones that frustrate me the most are complaints about model specifications. Some are legitimately major complaints, but often times it will be things that are highly unlikely to greatly influence the reported results. Examples are adding/dropping/changing a particular control variable and changes in the caliper used for propensity score matching. Note I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask to see differences, I’m asking that you clearly articulate why your suggestion is preferable and make an appropriate judgement as to whether it is a big problem or a little problem. A similar complaint is what information to include in tables or in the main manuscript or appendix. The author already has the information, so it is minor editing, not a major problem.

While I am here I will end with three additional complaints that don’t fit into anywhere previously in my post. One, multiple rounds of review are totally a waste. So the life cycle of the paper-review should be

paper -> review -> editor decision -> reject/accept
                                      revise-resumbit -> new paper + responses to reviews -> editor decision

The way the current system works, I have to submit another review after the new paper has been submitted. I rather the editor take the time to see if the authors sufficiently addressed the original complaints, because as a reviewer I am not an unbiased judge of that. So if I say something is important and you retort it is not, what else do you want me to say in my second review! It is the editors job at that point to arbiter disagreements. This then stops the cycle of multiple rounds of review, which have a very large amount of diminishing returns in improving the draft.

This then leads into my second complaint, generally about keeping a civil tone for reviews. In general I don’t care if a reviewer is a bit gruff in the review – it is not personal. But since reviewers have a second go, when I respond I need to keep an uber deferential tone. I don’t think that is really necessary, and I’d rather original authors have similar latitude to be gruff in responses. Reviewers say stupid things all the time (myself included) and you should be allowed to retort that my critique is stupid! (Of course with reasoning as to why it is stupid…)

Finally, I had one reviewer start recently:

This paper is interesting and very well written…I will not focus on the paper’s merits, but instead restrict myself to areas where it can be improved.

The good is necessary to signal to the editor whether a paper should be published. I’ve started to try in my own reviews to include more of the good (which is definately not the norm) and argue why a paper should be published. You can see in my linked review of the Xu and Griffiths paper by the third round I simply gave arguments why the paper should be published, despite a disagreement about the change-point model they reported on in the paper.

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  1. Roadblocks in Buffalo update (plus more complaints about peer-review!) | Andrew Wheeler

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