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Some time ago I submitted a paper to a preeminent journal, and yesterday I received the review letter from the editor. The email contained reviews from two reviewers.

Reviewer 1 has been very professional, and wrote a detailed, constructive, useful report of the main aspects of the paper to improve.

Reviewer 2, on the contrary, did the opposite: he/she just wrote five superficial sentences. Some of his/her comments are just false, some of them don't make any sense, and some of them are even incorrect in English!

In fact, this reviewer wrote: "The data of the manuscript are NOT available", when the truth is that our data file is publicly available online! It has always been available before submission, during the submission, and now; we the authors wrote this in the manuscript and in the cover letter. I wonder how it is possible that he/she wrote that!

Regarding the English grammar, I'm very surprised to see such poor usage of the language in this review. This is one of his/her original comments, for example:

How did you use the data to contruct and evaluate the models? I didn't see any mechnism for these purposes

Can you believe it? This sentence is very scarce and ambiguous, and even contains two English mistakes.

Reviewer 2 did not suggest a decision but just wrote:

This research is interesting, but I have a few concerns

I cannot explain in detail the comments of Reviewer 2 right now, but I can tell you that most of them make no scientific sense. I am very surprised and sorry to see that my paper, that my collaborator and I wrote in months of energy and effort, has been treated so unprofessionally, both by Reviewer 2 and by the editor who selected him/her.

The editor’s current decision is "major revision". The editor wrote that we should address the flaws of both the reviewers.

Question: What should I do now?

  • How can I communicate politely the issues of Reviewer 2's report to the editor?

  • Should I address these non-sense comments in the new version of the manuscript or not?

  • I strongly believe this person does not have the skills and knowledge to judge my paper. Can I ask to remove him from the reviewer list?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; comments about how bad the review actually is and spotting all instances of wrong English have been moved to chat. – Wrzlprmft Jul 31 '18 at 8:17
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It sounds as if the editor asked for a revise-and resubmit. In that case, your best move is to simply respond to Reviewer 2 as professionally as you can.

For outright false claims ("The data of the manuscript are NOT available"), reply something like "The data for the manuscript are available. We have revised p. X line Y to make this more clear." Don't be sarcastic or exasperated or angry, simply make the statement.

For sentences that don't make sense, try to find a nugget of sense in there and address that. It's generally safe (and often a good idea anyway) to response with something like "We have clarified the manuscript on this point" (and of course, try to clarify). If you simply can't understand the point no matter how you try, say something like "We are unclear on this reviewer's suggestion here. If the editor feels this is an important point, please clarify this and we will attempt to address this." (This is a last choice option and shouldn't be used more than once.) The message you are trying to give here is that you are trying to be cooperative, and again, the overall aim is to be professional even if a reviewer was not.

What if the editor rejected the manuscript on the basis of this bad review? (It doesn't sound like this happened, but it's worth discussing.) You have two choices: Accepting the decision and sending the manuscript elsewhere, or contacting the editor and asking for a re-consideration.

The first choice -- sending elsewhere -- is almost always the right one. It's rarely worth arguing with editors. Keep in mind that the editor has probably already recognized that the review is unprofessional and has taken that into account in their decision, so your argument is unlikely to change their mind.

But sometimes there are reasons to focus on the original journal -- the article might be a poor fit anywhere else, for example (perhaps a focused review written for a specific special issue). In that case, contacting the editor and politely and professionally explaining why the review is so bad is a possibility.

Will the editor agree? Maybe, maybe not. If they say the rejection stands, thank them and move on.

I've done this once, with a very unprofessional review, and the editor agreed with me that I could ignore Reviewer 2. I didn't completely ignore it, responding as best I could to the understandable points, and made an extra effort to be very cooperative with Reviewer 1. The paper was accepted after review. So it can work, but I would only do it under very specific conditions.


Edit to add one more point for the general case, not necessarily this particular situation: Before you talk to the editor, be very, very sure that the review in question really is that bad. It has to be utterly unprofessional, without a shred of redeeming value. We're not talking about someone who missed the point in a couple of comments, or who prefers a different model, or who has bad grammar. We're talking about a reviewer who doesn't believe in germ theory. They didn't even read past the title. They're critiquing a completely different paper. It's written in crayon.

And don't decide this immediately, because every review looks like it was written by an idiot when you first read it. Set it aside until you calm down and look at it again after a few days; you may be surprised how much more sense it makes when you aren't filled with adrenaline. Show it to someone not involved, to be sure you're judging it properly.

  • Thanks @iawork! I am particularly interested in the "contacting the editor and politely and professionally explaining why the review is so bad is a possibility" part. Did you contact the editor privately via email explaining all the issues of the review you received? And did you ask explicitly for the possibility to ignore it? – larry Jul 30 '18 at 16:52
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    I contacted the editor via email and went through the issues. I don't think I asked specifically for permission to ignore the reviewer; the manuscript had been rejected, and I think I said something like "Please take this opportunity to reconsider your decision; we will be happy to revise in accordance with Reviewer 1's comments". If the decision had been for revision rather than rejection (or if there was another journal I could have sent the article to -- the article was in response to a specific request for a special topic) I would not have contacted the editor at all. – iayork Jul 30 '18 at 16:56
  • Thanks @iayork for your reply and comments. I've cooled down and thought about the whole situation. The core problem is that I am worried that, after resubmission, the editors might decide "reject" for my paper, based upon the non-sense comments of Reviewer #2. That would be terrible to me. I am considering to write an email to the editor and ask him politely to ignore the unprofessional indications of Reviewer #2, and why. What do you think? Would it work? – larry Aug 2 '18 at 1:45
  • @larry I don't think it's a good idea, and I wouldn't be very worried about the editor here. Editors see far more reviews than you do, and generally have a pretty good idea what good and bad reviews look like. Your editor already knows there's a bad review, pointing it out is unnecessary. The best answer to an unprofessional review is a professional response. – iayork Aug 2 '18 at 1:53
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My personal experience estimates 1/3 of the review reports to be of low quality. They lack the specific competence, or are mean or aggressive. There are no general rules how to handle these situations. I just share my view.

I do not negotiate with substandard reviewers anymore. I did it in the past (“oke, if this point is important to you, I will move along”) because it was used against me in following rounds. I will refute wrong review directions from the start. Just recently me and my co-authors wrote the strongest rebuttal ever. Still professionally and responding to every word the reviewer put on paper, but it was directed to the editor. I don’t think the editor sent it out to that reviewer. Our work was accepted.

The problem with those reviewers is that the good reviewers who made their point are out of sight after the first revision. The really bad reviewers don’t reject but keep the process going. They will raise issue after issue. New issues, old issues. They cause smoke and confusion about your work while they are plain wrong. They show no intention to learn or understand. I can only guess for motives.

In my view bad quality review processes do have value and a potential to improve the author’s work but I also believe that these difficult review processes should be carefully managed by an editor. The role of the editor and reviewers is unclear. Some state reviewers are like God, other encourage you to see the review process as a dialogue between reviewer and author. Some say the editor decides, others say the editor just harvests ‘acceptances’.

I am sure editors also recognize this problem. I came to believe that the root cause is not the system but the publish or perish culture which blows the system up.

Unfortunately it is a downward spiral. I have to fight every fiber in my being not to respond in kind in the next paper I am asked to review. By now I have learned all one-liners to torpedo good and bad quality work.

Equally there are good authors and bad authors. If I hear reviewers proud themselves because having rejected the majority of the papers received by them, then I do not have to be a mathematician to understand that those rejected autors will be your next reviewers. If these rejected authors also felt falsely judged by a biased system (e.g. wrong country, university, gender, research group, etc.) then I can understand their feelings.

To finalize: I understand your frustration, anger, feeling of impotence. Scientific integrity is also professionally opposing false judgement of your work. For myself, these experiences teach me the kind of reviewer I not want to become. The biggest fight is not me against the system but me against myself and preserving my humanity.

  • Thanks @Alice: your answer actually exudes sincerity and authenticity. As I mentioned earlier, my worry is that the editor might decide to reject my paper basing upon a negative review by the unprofessional Reviewer #2. How to communicate to the editor he/she should not consider that? Via emai? In the resubmission letter? – larry Aug 2 '18 at 2:03
  • Thank you @Iarry First time I used the editorial comment box in the online system for our comments without success. Second time I put our comments to the editor in a separate direct email and in the online comment box and in the response letter. This worked. In another occasion I emailed the editorial office and got a reply that my question on how to interpret a review could not be answered, with the remarkable sentence “just do as the reviewers say”. Good luck! scirev.org/reviews also gives some nice perspectives on review processes. – user93911 Aug 2 '18 at 6:18
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In my own experience with getting papers published, I've also had instances of referees being less than fully up to the task of providing a usable review. Naturally, "usable" doesn't imply "positive". A negative referee report can be very useful if it provides pointers for how the paper might be improved. What's exasperating (and, often, infuriating) is when a referee report doesn't say much about the paper at hand and instead conveys the referee's sloppiness and lack of diligence.

Given that you've received (in essence) a revise-and-resubmit decision, by all means address all usable comments by revising the paper in the ways suggested by the referees. As part of the resubmission process, you should provide a detailed companion document in which you (a) list each and every point made by the referees and (b) explain how you and your coathors (if any) decided to modify the paper in response. For points that clearly betray nothing but a referee's sloppiness and lack of understanding, just write a soothing sentence or two to explain that the point is, well, beside the point. E.g., if the claim is that the data weren't available, write something like "We have added passages in the introduction to stress that the data are, in fact, available. This piece of information was provided earlier in [state the passage, or passages], but apparently this wasn't flagged sufficiently forcefully. The new version strives to avoid creating such an incorrect impression."

Separately, if and when the paper is either accepted or rejected (hopefully the former...), you may choose to write a letter to the editor to note that while the comments by Referee A were both useful and written professionally, the same cannot be said about Referee B's comments. In such a letter, you should give specific examples of how Referee B basically didn't rise to the challenge. Editors are not omniscient; in my experience they are generally actually grateful for receiving feedback on which referees do a good job and, conversely, which persons should not be asked to provide referee reports going forward.

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There was once that I had "strange" revision. The manuscript has six reviewers (yes, six) and remarks from reviewers take almost 20 pages. One reviewer wrote very strange remarks and suggestions. Our first reaction was as yours - we were angry. But we took a deep breath, and after a few days decided (I and coauthors) to address every remark from every reviewer very carefully. But in no way we did not know what to do with this strange one. It looks that reviewer did understand nothing - because he/she wrote about something poles apart from our topic. We supposed that maybe happens that reviewer just make a mistake and post review for the other manuscript. (Personally I usually prepare review in txt file and after reading and improving it a few times - paste into reviewer form. So mistakes may happen). Finally we addressed precisely all we can, and just wrote to the editor why we did not address remarks from one of the reviewers, with explanation why we suppose that this certain review does not suite to our manuscript. Article after revision has been published. So, keep calm and do the best you can. Good luck!

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