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Some paper reviewers feel the pressure to criticize something in order to appear competent. Sometimes they feel this pressure due to huge blank form fields for criticism in the reviewing system. As a consequence, they sometimes criticize wrongfully. Fully recovering from wrongful criticism during review is sometimes possible, but not always. This hurts the research community.

A while ago a saw advice in a video to have harmless and rather obvious mistakes (typos, inconsistent notation) on purpose in the manuscript when submitting for peer review, in order to avoid the aforementioned problems. I don't recall the details, nor who gave that talk.

Are you aware of such videos/articles, or can give examples of specific "diversionary tactics"?

Note that I'm only asking about specific example tactics. If you want to discuss (dis)advantages of choosing to use them at all, please open another question, and I'll be happy to link to it.


Edit: This question isn't about the pros and cons (see above). Many answers so far are as if I asked about the pros and cons (which I didn't).

Also, I'm not saying "I plan to do this, try to stop me". I just want to find the information that exists about it.

Note that I mean harmless mistakes. Also, they are fixed before publishing even if not asked to.

A related technique from programming is called "a duck".

The psychological phenomenon is called "Parkinson's law of triviality".

closed as unclear what you're asking by Pete L. Clark, Bryan Krause, Azor Ahai, WetlabStudent, David Richerby Oct 31 '18 at 11:08

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    And what if this tactic makes a reviewer to somehow miss an actual serious mistake in your paper? – Peaceful Oct 28 '18 at 14:43
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    Why bother to insert something that is practically guaranteed to already be present? And what if this addition makes the reviewer decide that the number of harmless mistakes is so big that it is not worth their time to do anything but send it back for proofreading? – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 28 '18 at 15:31
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    It’s a waste of the revieer’s time and effort. – Solar Mike Oct 28 '18 at 15:31
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    Is this really a question? This site is not really optimized for open-ended discussion. – Daniel R. Collins Oct 28 '18 at 17:39
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    How is this a shopping question? – Allure Oct 29 '18 at 1:16
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enter image description here

You're not the first one to come up with this idea.

In case it's not obvious, I recommend against doing this:

  • Having stupid mistakes in your submission makes you look stupid.
  • It wastes the reviewer's time.
  • It wastes the editor's time.
  • If all the mistakes get through the review process, it wastes the reader's time deciphering what you means, and also makes you look stupid again.

Just don't.

  • 11
    I had a team lead who would send back legitimately good programs with a "fix suggestion" that made things worse unless you put in a bug for him to find. To be fair, he also admitted he was a bad team lead but he couldn't turn down the pay increase and constantly flip-flipped between apologizing for being a bad team lead one day to managing by fear (reminding a guy that he used to deliver pizza and could easily again) the next. I think your point stands, if people are genuinely trying to help, don't do it. But there are reasons to do it. – corsiKa Oct 28 '18 at 19:53
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    "If all the mistakes get through the review process" -- I think, the idea is that you'll fix mistake during review, asked or not – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Oct 28 '18 at 19:59
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    @user71659, why so hostile towards academia? Reviewers aren't normally paid and they spend time and effort to read your work and offer suggestions for improvement. True, they also serve as a gate to keep garbage out of the mainstream. Is any of that bad? Or do you think their main purpose is to attack you personally and keep your ideas down? Same question about teachers, I guess. Are they out to harm you personally? Sorry, I don't get it. – Buffy Oct 28 '18 at 20:27
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    @Buffy It is very common in smaller fields that your paper ends up going to either a friend or a competitor, for which the competitor has a vested interest in harshly criticizing your work and pushing their own viewpoints, especially when it comes to high-impact journals and grants. The problem is it isn't "garbage" but almost all journals, and especially grants, consider novelty and significance, and that's inherently a personal opinion. Go search for the fight for publications in Cell, Nature, Science, and also NIH R01s. Simply, eat or be eaten. – user71659 Oct 28 '18 at 20:32
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    @Buffy Maybe things are different in math/CS, but all of the major physical and life science journal rely on the opinion of editors and they have inherent beliefs. And if you're talking about Cell/Nature/Science, close to 90% of their papers are rejected at the editor pre-review. What do you think happens? The editor reads the title, authors, abstract and decides. My field had a major fight in which a number of authors got together and wrote a letter pointing out that a particular Cell/Nature/Science topical editor accepted only papers from a small number of groups. This is the harsh reality. – user71659 Oct 28 '18 at 20:47
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This is a terrible idea. Just a couple of days ago, I reviewed a paper with a lot of confusing descriptions and elaborate mathematics. It was not clear that the explanatory sections were going to be clear enough for me to be able to evaluate the mathematical material in a useful fashion, but ordinarily I would have given it a try.

However, the very first equation of the paper (which, dealing with introductory matters, was not particularly complicated) contained an obvious error. I concluded that if the authors were that careless, it was not worth my time to try to pick through each and every poorly documented equation, trying to see if they were all valid. The editor agreed and rejected the paper.

So including stupid mistakes like this will only call into question whether you have been careful enough in preparing the manuscript. If it looks like the authors have been lazy or careless, there is little motivation for reviewers and editors to try to fix things for the authors.

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    This answer has nothing to do with my question. I wrote in the question: "Note that I'm only asking about specific example tactics. If you want to discuss (dis)advantages of choosing to use them at all, please open another question, and I'll be happy to link to it." – LvB Oct 29 '18 at 16:45
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    @LvB If you ask for different ways to commit suicide, other people always have a right to say that you shouldn't do it instead of simply listing those for you. – Peaceful Oct 30 '18 at 0:09
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    @Peaceful But if you ask for it on the appropriate site (e.g. Worldbuilding for fanciful techniques), then any answer telling you not to would quickly get closed as NAA, especially if the OP explicitly says he does not intend to do so. – forest Oct 30 '18 at 1:49
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    This is a real life situation, so users can say don't do it. Arrogantly saying that that is not what I asked is quite insulting to people who invest their time and energy writing the answers. – Peaceful Oct 30 '18 at 2:38
  • I kind of think the main point this answer provides here is that it points out to the OP that people who think their manuscript is "great" may find that it's confusing to the reviewer, even without making harmless mistakes, and those harmless mistakes will compound the reviewer and perhaps even convince them the entirety of the paper was careless mistakes. – enderland Oct 31 '18 at 0:31
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This interesting strategy has been identified in a programming context, where it has been dubbed "the duck technique" (see this post on the Coding Horror blog):

This started as a piece of Interplay corporate lore. It was well known that producers (a game industry position, roughly equivalent to [project managers]) had to make a change to everything that was done. The assumption was that subconsciously they felt that if they didn't, they weren't adding value.

The artist working on the queen animations for Battle Chess was aware of this tendency, and came up with an innovative solution. He did the animations for the queen the way that he felt would be best, with one addition: he gave the queen a pet duck. He animated this duck through all of the queen's animations, had it flapping around the corners. He also took great care to make sure that it never overlapped the "actual" animation.

Eventually, it came time for the producer to review the animation set for the queen. The producer sat down and watched all of the animations. When they were done, he turned to the artist and said, "that looks great. Just one thing - get rid of the duck."

I have not heard of doing this in regard to the peer review process for journal publication, and in that context I would advise against it. Perhaps others have had different experiences, but I have not observed any tendency for journal referees to ask for changes merely for the sake of appearing to add value. Since most of these processes are blind review, the referee is not usually identified to the author, and there is little reason for referees to grandstand like this.

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    Worth noting that the duck wasn't an error. A closer analogy here would be deliberately including an outright bug in the software, which seems considerably more likely to backfire. – Geoffrey Brent Oct 29 '18 at 2:12
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    The duck was a thing included specifically to be targeted for removal, so it is analogous to the "errors" that the OP is talking about in his question. – Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '18 at 2:19
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    @Ben Just out of curiosity what percentage of your reviews have come back "Content and format are perfect, no improvements suggested"? – Myles Oct 29 '18 at 15:14
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    +1 for an amusing and informative answer that makes a clear distinction between programming culture and academic culture. – Pete L. Clark Oct 29 '18 at 17:44
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    Note also that the duck technique came up in a well-defined corporate environment where people knew who would be reviewing their work, whereas in refereeing you generally can't anticipate who will be refereeing your work. These situations call for different behavior. – darij grinberg Oct 30 '18 at 7:36
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This tactic (which is by the way more of a joke than something that people actually do) is designed to deal with an archetypal incompetent manager who is incapable to understand the work they are given to review, yet unable to admit their incompetence and so are resorting to bike shedding to compensate.

Trying it on people who are actually competent will result in one of the outcomes:

  • they will not realize you're using the tactic on them and decide you're sloppier than you actually are
  • they will realize it and feel offended that you take them for someone who would hide their incompetence behind irrelevant changes

Neither improves the chances for your paper to be received well.

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In case you feel the reviewer is either biased or psychologically set to validate his/her competence by unjustly criticizing your work as if implying that it was properly reviewed by an expert, it is actually possible to introduce something which should be edited out but I advise extreme caution. It should be very subtle and yet conspicuous enough. It should not cast any doubt on your own competence: perhaps, something superfluous or murky but well-known to the reviewer so that he/she will enjoy criticizing it. However if you don’t know the reviewer and his/her level of competence, it’s better to be extra cautious about such things.

A few words about typos and sloppiness in formatting: The reviewer will feel more justified to pile up his/her criticisms so much as to consider the paper to be low quality stuff or a mess. I saw it happen when excellent papers got almost scrapped for lack of clarity and accidental errata. So, typos, bad formatting and inconsistencies are no-go; such stuff will only detract from your paper. Only much more subtle strategy is viable and only when you know the reviewers are less competent or unjustly biased. As to diversionary tactics, such things should be specified and discussed with the experts in the area of your work. Using some primitive generic tactics (typos, notation inconsistency, etc.) will only draw criticism.

If some "criticizing" blanks or forms or any bureaucracy are pulled on you, you should seek advice of colleagues in your area. It's better not to leave anything to chance, and discuss everything with the experts in your area. Finding out what forms/blanks or bureaucracy you are dealing with is crucial.

Your paper might be reviewed on general (non-expert in the area) principles just as if it were only reviewed by proofreaders or lay people. So making it more consistent, coherent, logical, clear, succinct, and free of spelling and formatting errors will be a big plus.

You should probably rely more on the guidelines that are used when reviewing papers in your area, rather then focusing on diversionary tactics. A lot of bad reviews are a result of carelessness (both on the part of the reviewer and on the part of the scientist), overzelousness and bureaucracy (or should I say strict "proofreader-like" guidelines for scientists), rather than malicious intent assuming the paper in question displays outstanding ideas and great substance. Please check some guidelines as How to Write a Good Scientific Paper: a Reviewer’s Checklist A Checklist for Editors, Reviewers, and Authors by Chris Mack or suchlike articles and guidelines. Their number in astonishing. Nowadays a lot of science is about сitation indexes; and a lot of reviews are about formal structure, clarity of reasoning, proper references, nice presentation of data, etc. used in the paper.

Please note that this is very generic advice. You may want to tailor it to your area of expertise with all the corresponding changes you deem necessary. Bottom line: I strongly advise against generic diversionary tactics. Tailor everything to your area of expertise. Unfortunately, if they don't want to publish it, they won't, even if it is a breakthrough. You might need extra recommendations and credentials. Please also note how much pseudoscience we have today, and some of it sneaks in respected publications! So a huge number of papers need to be weeded out.

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    Your bolded comment on formatting errors has a formatting error. Having satisfied my need to criticize something, I can now comfortably give a +1. – Mario Carneiro Oct 28 '18 at 23:32
  • @LvB Sorry to hear that my advice was totally off. Actually, I was trying to suggest to employ diversionary tactics in line with your area, which should be subtle but conspicuous, and it should not cast doubt on your competence in the area. I meant avoiding seeking generic diversionary tactics as the worst plan possible. Sorry. I gave you specific tactics but it's not that specific -- you need to discuss it with colleagues in your area IMO. – Ken Draco Oct 29 '18 at 17:04
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    @KenDraco Sorry, I had accidentally commented under the wrong answer. You're right. Subtle and conspicuous, not casting doubt on the authors' competence, non-generic/area-specific - makes sense. Thank you! – LvB Oct 29 '18 at 17:54
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This is not an exact match to your request, but is similar enough in spirit and relevant enough to your question to mention.

There's a very interesting and entertaining article by Karl Friston published in Neuroimage, called "Ten ironic rules for non-statistical reviewers". The point of the article is to give a generic 'slap on the wrist' to "common" review points by people who may or may not understand the statistical implications of their suggestions, and who may simply be making statistically-correct-sounding generic statements out of a need to seem useful / not-unknowledgeable, and err on the side of rejection.

It does so in the highly unusual format of starting off with a highly sarcastic and humorous introduction of why a reviewer is under "so much pressure to reject these days", given articles have increased in quality, and proceeds to offer ten tongue-in-cheek "rules" for them to try in order to ensure a malicious rejection even in the presence of good papers. It only enters non-sarcastic serious discussion as to why those rules are poor interpretations of statistics in the much-longer "appendix" of the paper, which is in fact the 'real' article.

So in a sense, this is the same thing as you're talking about, except seen from the reverse direction: instead of instructing authors on how to keep reviewers "busy" with trivialities, it is a tongue-in-cheek article instructing reviewers on how to focus on trivialities in the presence of an actually well-presented paper, in order to sound like they have critical influence over the outcome and / or to ensure a rejection / wasting of time for the author (i.e. heavily implying that this is a common-enough occurence to warrant such a sarcastic article).

(the original paper is paywalled, but a version of the pdf should be available to read for free online via a simple search engine search; it's a rather popular paper!)

5

Let's set up a simple static game: assume that there are two kinds of reviewers, "Good R" and "Bad R". "Good R" are those that they know the subject well but even if they don't, they will try to honestly review the paper on merit. "Bad R" are those who will go for "wrongful criticism" in the logic laid out by the OP, and for "Superficial Criticism" if we submit a superficially sloppy paper. We consider two strategies, "Superficial Sloppiness" and "Tidy manuscript". In all we have four possible states.

I argue that the most preferred state is "Good R - Tidy manuscript". In such a case the paper will be reviewed on merit by an appropriate reviewer. Let's assign the numerical value/utility 4 to this outcome (the scale is ordinal).

Consider now the state "Good R- Superficial Sloppiness". As other answers indicated, we will most likely get a quick reject (and acquire a bad reputation in the eyes of a person that we shouldn't). This is the worst it could happen to our paper, in light of the fact that it was assigned to a Good Reviewer. We assign the value 1 to this state.

Let's move to the situation "Bad R - Wrongful Criticism". Supposedly this is the state that we want to avoid by the proposed tactic. I argue that this state is not worse than the state "Good R- Superficial Sloppiness", because "Good R- Superficial Sloppiness" is a bad state because we shoot our own feet really, while "Bad R - Wrongful Criticism" is an unfortunate but expected situation. So we assign the value 2 to this state.

Finally the state "Bad R - Superficial Criticism" is what we try to guarantee with this tactic. We certainly consider it as better than the previous one, but not as good as having a Good Reviewer assessing our tidy paper on merit. So we assign the value 3 to this state. The normal form of the game is therefore

enter image description here

There is no strictly or weakly dominant strategy here. But let's not go into mixed strategy equilibria. From our point of view, reviewers are chosen by nature (mother nature, not Nature the journal) with some probability, say p for the probability that we get a Bad Reviewer. Then the expected utility for each strategy is

V(Sprf Slop) = p x 3 + 1 x (1-p) =2p+1
V(Tidy Mnscr) = p x 2 + 4 x (1-p) =4-2p

It appears rational to chose the Superficial Sloppiness tactic iff

V(Sprf Slop) > V(Tidy Mnscr) => 2p+1 > 4-2p => p > 3/4

In words, if you think that the chance that you will get a Bad Reviewer is higher then 3/4, then your expected utility will be indeed higher by applying such an embarrassing tactic.

Do 3 out of 4 reviewers belong to the Bad Reviewer category in your field?

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    Cute analysis! Upvoted. I like that your model gives the mathematically honest answer that under certain circumstances (though usually not very realistic ones) OP’s strategy might actually be beneficial. By the way, I love game theory, but it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t really a game theory model, despite your use of game theoretic terminology and notation, since your “Mother Nature” is simply a source of randomness rather than an adversary trying to optimize some utility function. In other words, the model is a 1-person game, more commonly known as an “optimization problem”. – Dan Romik Oct 31 '18 at 0:47
  • @DanRomik Thanks. Indeed this is a "game against nature" where we play against a probability distribution rather than another self-interested entity. But I would say that the expository tools of game theory are very useful and head-clearing even in such a setting, especially when we have a few discrete outcomes. – Alecos Papadopoulos Oct 31 '18 at 1:42
  • Superficial criticism here, because I only know game theory superficially, but I guess this model hasn't thought about that the reviewers are social animal. In social psychology, an intention to do something MAY NOT mean they will do it. – Ooker Oct 31 '18 at 5:33

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