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Scientists have sense of humour, shock

Tom Feilden | 09:52 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

"This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author's email".

Hardly the sort of dry, dispassionate, technical assessment you expect from one researcher about another's work, but it seems that scientists are human after all.

That's the verdict after the Journal of Environmental Microbiology chose to publish some of the wittier one-liners from referees involved in the peer review process.

The results veer from the downright rude - "The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style" - via the enigmatic - "Preliminary and intriguing results...that should be published elsewhere" - to the artlessly charming - "Very much enjoyed reading this one and do not have any significant comments. Wish I had thought of it."

Much of the vitriol can be put down to the pressures of competition. Inevitably, referees are picked from a pool that includes an author's closest rivals. Other comments seem deliberately designed to try the patience of the journal's editors.

"I agreed to review this in the golden glow of a balmy evening on Lake Como. Back in the harsh light of reality in Belfast I realise that it would probably have been better not to have volunteered".

On the whole though it's the acerbic viciousness that catches the eye. "The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home and then spend time to wonder what life is about," writes one reviewer.

Speaking on the programme this morning the neurologist professor Colin Blakemore acknowledged there was a long and celebrated history to the caustic review.

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"Hans Krebs' classic paper on the Krebs cycle, perhaps the most important development in cell biology in the 20th century, was rejected by Nature. They said it was of insufficient general interest. He went on to win the Nobel prize for that".

With apologies to William Congreve, it seems Hell hath no fury like a scientist scorned.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    All of the referees' quotes 2010 published by Environmental Microbiology are online here http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1462-2920.2010.02394.x/full

  • Comment number 2.

    Sense of humour, as others alike use to have and spend, of course. By the way, It is not the time to extend that feature to any kind of their human tasks?

  • Comment number 3.

    I was the editor of the BMJ for 13 years and slowly came to realise that peer review, although central to science, is a faith based not an evidence based process. I'm all for abandoning it.

    Over the years we collected examples of silly, funny, crazy, inconsistent comments, and here are a few:

    1. Forgive me if I return it without formal review, but I am totally unqualified to comment. You need someone with a postgraduate training in epidemiology, not an unlearned professor of neurology. Having said that, the paper is clearly rubbish…

    2. In my opinion retrospective studies of this nature have relatively little significance except for the possible interest of their conclusions.

    3 I gave it 3 out of 3 stars for scientific reliability, methods, results, and interpretation. In conclusion, I find the message rather trivial and have serious misgivings about the data analysis.

    Reviewer A: I found this paper an extremely muddled paper with a large number of deficits.
    Reviewer B: It is written in a clear style and would be understood by any reader

    Reviewer A: It is absolutely impossible to follow the numbers involved in this study.
    Reviewer B: Clear definitions, transparent analysis, clear presentation of results, and interpretation

    The great editor of the Lancet, Robbie Fox, had a peer review method of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and then publishing the ones that reached the bottom.

    One of Britain's leading epidemiologists challenged me to publish an issue of the BMJ comprised only of rejected papers. I wrote back and said "How do you know we haven't done it already?"

    The wisest and funniest thing ever written about peer review was a Socratic dialogue by Chris Martyn. You can access it at:

    http://resources.bmj.com/bmj/pdfs/martyn.pdf

 

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