A Blast from the Past

Sometimes you need a thick skin to be a scientist or scholar. Almost everyone, it seems, has encountered a reviewer who didn’t bother to read what you wrote or badly misunderstood what you said.

In other cases, you realize on reflection that a reviewer’s criticisms, although annoying and even painful at first, are justified in whole or in part. Addressing the reviewer’s criticisms helps you improve your paper or grant. That’s been my experience in most cases.

Sometimes, though, a reviewer just doesn’t like your work. And occasionally they can be pretty nasty about it. Here’s a case that I experienced on submission of the first paper about the Long-Term Evolution Experiment.

{You can click on the image of the review to enlarge it.}

Rev 1 of 1991 LTEE

A few choice lines:

“This paper has merit and no errors, but I do not like it …”

“I feel like a professor giving a poor grade to a good student …”

“The experiment is incomplete and the paper seriously premature …”

“I am upset because continued reliance on statistics and untested models by population geneticists will only hasten the demise of the field.”

“Since the Deans of Science at most universities can only count and not read, I can fully appreciate the reasons for trying to publish this part of the work alone.”

“Molecular biology … should be used whenever possible because molecular biologists control the funding and most of the faculty appointments.”

I’ve occasionally shared this with members of my lab when they get difficult reviews to remind them that it’s not the end of the world or their career, or even the paper that has been scorched.

PS The revised paper was accepted by The American Naturalist. In fact, it won the best-paper award there for the year in which it was published. It has also been cited hundreds of times.



Filed under Education, Science

8 responses to “A Blast from the Past

  1. skryazhi

    Thanks for sharing this, Rich. When I see a review like this, I wish reviews were not anonymous. I doubt anybody would write such pointless and arrogant text, if they knew that their name would be attached to it forever.

  2. Over a period of about 25 years my experience with reviewers has been mainly positive, maybe 80% of the time it’s been useful and led to improvements in the final paper or chapter. Just occasionally, however, reviewers get things spectacularly wrong, as in this case. Not just wrong, but self important and condescending too.

    Something similar happened to me a few years ago when I had to appeal a decision at Oikos, which had opted to reject a short paper because one of the reviewers dismissed it in a few lines as “of no interest”. That paper (“How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”) is now the most cited paper in Oikos in the period 2010 to date, by a factor of two.

    As you might imagine, I’m fond of telling that story 🙂

    • Brian McGill

      As both your story, Jeff, and Rich’s story suggest, often it is the more non-traditional, potentially truly novel papers, that get the harshest reviews. Good editors see through this.

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  4. eric charnov

    Hi Rich; In 1975 I submitted an Optimal foraging paper to ‘Theoretical Population Biology’, and Tom Schoener got 3 reviews: all 3 were quite negative and urged rejection! Schoener had me revise the paper, and then it was accepted.[ Schoener has published this story too].
    Of course it was the ‘ marginal value theorem paper’ and went on to be the most cited paper ever published in TPB [ GS cits ~4000 ].
    ric charnov

  5. on the plus side it is a detailed and long piece of justification – unlike one I received from a reviewer who had fallen out with my supervisor and decided to take it out on me; it read, “this is rubbish”. It was of course published 🙂