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151. Avoid These Phrases in Your Peer Review

The Peer Review villain, alternatively known as ‘Reviewer 2’ or ‘Reviewer 3’, has gained meme status. This is the person who takes your submitted journal article, drenches it in red ink, shreds it, burns it, and feeds the ashes to feral pigs.

And unfortunately, it has happened to all of us. There always seems to be one reviewer that doesn’t just ask for additional experiments, but finds a way to cut a little deeper.

Maybe it comes in the form of an emotive shaming (“Disappointingly, the authors failed to cite Smith, 2015”) or a veiled accusation (“It seems possible that the outlier data has been scrubbed from this report.”), but however it happens, it can affect something more than your experiments.

Some hostile comments might make you wonder whether you belong in science at all.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.

This week, we talk with a linguist and a psychologist about carefully crafting your peer reviews.

Peer Review Detox

Dr. Rebekah Baglini and Dr. Christine Parsons realized there was a toxic undercurrent in some reviewers’ writing.

“Rejection is always difficult, but reviews that use emotive or sarcastic language are often the hardest for recipients to deal with, particularly if they are early-career researchers,” the two wrote in their recent article “If you can’t be kind in peer review, be neutral” published in Nature, November 30, 2020.

They argue that scientific reviews should look more like scientific writing: reviews should be neutral, fact-based, and not reflect the personality or emotions of the author.

But the shift to negativity can be subtle, and their article gives many examples:

The fact-based statement “The project proposal didn’t fulfill the stated requirements” can be modified to:

“The project proposal didn’t bother to fulfill the stated requirements.”

or

“The ‘project proposal’ didn’t fulfill the stated requirements.”

Both modifications drip with contempt, but neither adds value or new information. They just tell us how the reviewer was feeling in that moment.

This week, we talk with Drs. Baglini and Parsons as they unpack the importance of neutral peer review, the words to watch for, and some simple things you can do to make your own writing more appropriate and helpful.

And isn’t that the point?

Dr. Parsons concludes, “You don’t go around punching players on your own team. One of the objectives of peer review is to improve scholarship. Not just your own scholarship, but to improve scholarship in your field.”

For a full list of expressive words and phrases to avoid, see their article in Nature.

To follow their work, find them on Twitter (@RebekahBaglini and @ce_parsons ), or at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark.

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