I can still count the number of reviews I’ve received at this point in my short career – although I admit I had to look up the specific numbers. Reviews associated with manuscripts that were rejected (five manuscripts; ten reviews) and reviews associated with manuscripts that were accepted (three manuscripts; nine reviews). I generally agree with the points raised in reviews, whether those points deal with grammar/spelling, or narrative flow, or analyses. People are, in general, trying to be helpful while upholding their personal standards for scientific literature.
And then there’s Reviewer 2.
To be fair, when I write ‘Reviewer 2’ I mean it in the figurative sense as used in academic memes directed at the peer review system. So if you’ve been Reviewer 2 on one of my papers – don’t fret. Unless you were the figurative Reviewer 2… then I guess it might be time for self-reflection.
I have a process when receiving The Email from the Editor – I briefly scan the first paragraphs to establish if it was accept or reject, and then forward The Email to my co-authors. I don’t read the reviewers’ comments until the next morning. If it was ‘reject’, I’ll read through the comments and make a plan of action for resubmission (except in one case where I agreed that they had excellent points and shelved the manuscript permanently); if it was ‘accept but’, I’ll read the comments as I’m putting them into the response document. It’s a stressful experience.
Now, Reviewer 2.
I’ve come across Reviewer 2 a few times now. I’ll take a moment to describe three cases. The first was almost poetic in that the very first sentences were polar opposites – Reviewer 1 wrote that the manuscript was “very well written” while Reviewer 2 wrote that the manuscript was “not well written”. The rest of their comments lead me to believe they had not actually read the manuscript in any serious sense at all. The second instance happened when one of my soil manuscripts went to someone who I expect was without soil expertise. I fondly think of them as my crazy reviewer. In this case, Reviewer 2 left a very short review focussing on a variable only minorly important to the overall narrative. My responses to this author were quite detailed, but action on the manuscript was limited to the inclusion of an additional reference, and a somewhat out of place additional sentence in the introduction.
The last instance was me. I think I was someone’s Reviewer 2, or at least had aspects of Reviewer 2 in my comments. Some context: the more I read of this manuscript, the more outrageous the whole thing was. A small army of co-authors, a somewhat prestigious grant, a highly ranked journal AND YET there was barely a whole (small) experiment, data analysis was basically non-existent, and the writing was so bad as to appear to be a fairly early draft from a moderately talented undergraduate. My review was short, direct, and strongly recommended rejection without resubmission. The time between me accepting the manuscript request and rejecting the manuscript itself was less than a week.
Straying a little into the mindset of Reviewer 2 helped me to realise some things. Firstly, that just because it’s taken two months for the reviews to come back doesn’t mean that a particular reviewer is holding up the process. After I submitted my recommendations above, I think the editor made their decision within a few hours. I’d had it less than a week, but who knows how long the editor was looking before they found someone to accept the request?
Secondly, that reviewers can tell when you’ve scrapped together the bare minimum. If the bare minimum for a good journal is all you’ve got, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you’re aiming for.
Finally, it’s reinforced the idea that no matter what the manuscript is like, the best thing you can be is honest and kind. And if you can’t manage both, be at least honest and tactful.