2

Context

It is the first time I am submitting a research article as a first author. The review reports finally came back.

  • Review A is positive, suggesting acceptance and a few modifications.
  • Review B is extremely negative. It picks two simplifying assumptions that appear in our argument and explains in detail why they devoid our work of any value.

After seeking a third reviewer for weeks (six potential reviewers successively declined), the editor finally rejected the paper and suggested a transfer to another journal of the same editor.

Issue

I have no issue with the scientific content of either review. It is clear that both reviewers have read the paper carefully and understand the core of it. Yet, when I try to read review B again and work out how it translates into improving the analysis and the paper, I find myself unable to focus. The choice of words is so brutal, that tears fill my eyes and I start feeling dizzy. It feels as if I was just punched in the stomach. I would like to separate the core of the message from the way it is worded, but a flow of emotions just start pouring and I find myself unable to stop it.

Question

What practical steps can I take in order to handle this criticism more effectively?

7
  • 1
    To which degree do you think is the harsh criticism of reviewer B justified (when just focusing on the contents of the criticism)? I think the answer to this question would, to a large degree, determine my response. Sep 7 at 16:39
  • 2
    How to handle harsh criticism? In this case it's probably not personal, so don't take it as such. That lessens the sting a bit now, and the next time will be easier to navigate. You might even ask a trusted colleague for a second opinion, what it really as harsh as it appeared to you? Sep 7 at 16:39
  • 2
    @Alexis I will trust your assessment that the statement was clear enough in abstract and paper. Consequently, this is a case of "reviewer didn't read properly" - that sucks and is unfair, but the unfortunate truth is that this happens all the time. I would focus my efforts on making it even harder for the laziest reviewer to overlook the relevant parts of abstract + paper. Sep 7 at 16:49
  • 5
    Shelve the paper for two weeks at least and focus on something else.
    – henning
    Sep 7 at 17:19
  • 2
    @Snijderfrey I am tempted to say it does, but since the top answer's second advice is to wait for 24h, do you mind if I answer you tomorrow?
    – Alexis
    Sep 7 at 17:32
6

First, deep breath... And, no, I don't mean that as a vapid platitude. One of the physiological effects of stress is short, tight, and shallow breathing; in the worst cases it can lead to hyperventilation. That is not conducive to calm, focused attention. Four seconds in-breath, six seconds out-breathe, repeat six times. It's a minute out of your life that will do wonders for your equilibrium.

Second, remind yourself that academics are people. Some have bad days, some are bad-tempered churls, some get triggered irrationally by things that you have no way of predicting, and all of them are responding to what they read (filtered through their own worldview), not to what you were trying to write. Don't let yourself take it as criticism from on high; see it as the input of knowledgable but flawed peers.

Now, there are two effective techniques I know of for dealing with this, as follows:

  1. Zen-editor mode: Get a red, green, and blue pen (or the software equivalents). Cross out all the 'hostile' phrases in red, and edit in polite equivalents in green. Underline everything useful in blue. Correct the grammar and sentence structure. If necessary, fantasize about sending the corrections back to the reviewer, then go back and read the edited version. You should find the experience cathartic, and the review much easier to follow.
  2. Piss-and-vinegar mode: Consciously allow yourself to get self-righteously angry — in the "How dare they talk to me like that!" sense — and then read the review with the same jaundiced, hyper-critical attitude this reviewer used on your paper. Wade into it with the thought that you are going to take this nonsense down, and let the natural academic competitive streak take over and do its thing. There's nothing wrong with being angry about nastiness, and (for academics, at least) anger can be very focusing. Just keep it clinical: you're trying to tear down the review, not the reviewer.

I prefer the first approach, but it takes more presence of mind (and maybe a taste for sardonic humor). The second approach plays more into academic strengths and innate tendencies. But either way you can pull out what's useful and dispose of what isn't.

2
  • 1
    Re 2): "Revenge is a dish best served cold" captures the appropriate attitude here.
    – henning
    Sep 7 at 18:04
  • @henning: Meh, I see it more as reclaiming one's own power and authority, but, you know... :-) Sep 7 at 18:47

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