I'm writing a commentary-ish paper on what NOT to do on peer-reviews. Like many of you here, I've received numerous reviews ranging from very good and constructive to absolute garbage.

Some background:

Some of the notably bad ones include recommending rejection entirely because of the sample used or that the manuscript cited papers from authors the reviewer had a personal falling out with. Most questionable reviews are on the lesser side, typically including subjective interpretations (e.g., "This topic is not important") to just poor commentary with no clarification of their stance (e.g., "The authors claim X, Y, and Z. I don't agree.").

Now, my question is, is it permissible to quote examples of real bad peer-reviews in papers? The peer-review comments are also double-blinded (or will be anonymized) and won't be identifiable (and thus it would be hard to claim defamation here--but heck, I'm not a lawyer).

Would it even be recommended to use real examples (i.e., is there possibility of some form of retaliation)?

I would believe that using real examples would hold more weight but I can also imagine slightly altering them to avoid issues down the road.

*NOTE: I'm also writing a blog-esque type commentary on toxicity in academia where I would cite real examples of academic workplace toxicity. A possible spin-off question would be whether the answers to the two questions above is the same for quoting real cases of toxicity.

Edit: Per Anyon's comment, comments of original nature are likely to be construed as copyrighted from a legal standpoint (including peer-review comments). That being said, I believe quoting real peer-review comments will likely need to be credited to "Anonymous Reviewer" for those obtained via double-blinded review.

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    Why would they not be copyrighted? As per the Berne convention a copyright exists the moment a work is fixed. Publication or registration is not required. I don't see why a review wouldn't be a work. Of course, that doesn't rule out quoting.
    – Anyon
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:21
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    That is a valid point and something that went over my head when first writing this--thank you for pointing this out. A quick Google search seems to agree that comments of original nature are likely to be considered copyrighted in the legal sense.
    – ssjjaca
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:31
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    Some journals publish the peer reviews and make them fully citable. In this case, I would argue it's certainly permissible. Otherwise, you're quoting from an unpublished source, which might be considered controversial.
    – gerrit
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:35
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    F1000Research publishes peer reviews - Frontiers may, I don't recall Oct 25, 2021 at 15:53
  • @AzorAhai With the consent of the reviewers, surely. Oct 28, 2021 at 16:34

3 Answers 3


Look for officially published peer reviews.

For example, atmospheric chemistry and physics and other journals by the same publisher (Copernicus) make all peer reviews public, along with author replies, other comments, and editor comments. All have DOIs and are fully citable. In this case, there should be no objection to quoting peer-reviews.

Quoting from unpublished sources may be more problematic, because the authors never agreed for their comments to be made public. In this case, it's even more important that your quotes are rather generic, so nobody can be sure you're quoting them.

If you quote from published peer reviews, there is of course still a risk that the author goes public and gets angry. Anyone can get angry for any or no reason. If you're worried about that, maybe pick examples that aren't from your field?

  • Your latter 2 points are important and interesting as it deals with consent. In my field, it's very uncommon for peer-reviews to ever be published or be made public. I believe this would be one case for slightly altering real comments to not run into the issues you mention above.
    – ssjjaca
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:43
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    @ssjjaca If the bad behaviour you're citing is indeed common, you should (sadly) have no trouble finding examples in peer reviews from other fields...
    – gerrit
    Oct 25, 2021 at 15:45

It should be fine, but put in an ethics application with your university first

Assuming you are at a university, you can apply to your university ethics office to put in an application for your proposed research. The university will then review the proposed research and advise whether it breaches any ethical or legal rules. If you are not at a university you might still be able to get some advice from the ethics office of your alma mater.

So long as your proposed research does not identify the reviewers or journals, there ought to be no issue of defamation involved (and in any case, truth is a defence against an action for defamation). It is also unlikely to breach the right to privacy, since it will not give "unwarranted publicity" to any person or institution. Some commentators have pointed out that the review contents would be subject to copyright. While that is true, copyright laws provide exemptions for use in academic research. Specifically, the "fair use" exception for copyright usually allows use of a work for the purposes of academic research, criticism or review, and parody or satire.

I disagree with the view that you need to confine your attention to published reviews. As in many contexts, academic research may legitimately find and report information that is not on the public record, so long as you obey relevant laws relating to defamation, privacy, and copyright. The obvious drawback of confining attention to published reviews is that the authors of such reviews are likely to be "on their best behaviour" when they know their review will be published.

  • Reporting bias is related to your last sentence.
    – user32966
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:29
  • I was thinking of the Hawthorne effect rather than reporting bias (though it is disputable whether this effect is really a serious issue at all).
    – Ben
    Oct 28, 2021 at 20:45
  • The Hawthorne effect clearly applies. In my opinion, it is an assumption worth mentioning in a study that such effects were not measured or modeled.
    – user32966
    Oct 28, 2021 at 20:49

I would be wary of quoting peer-reviews because you do not have the writer's consent. I don't know if it is a legal grey-area, but it feels like an ethical grey-area. If I wrote you a private email and you cited me in a paper, even anonymously, I would still feel there was a breach of trust. I think reviews we expect to go unpublished, should stay unpublished in full unless you have the reviewer's permission.

If the issues you are discussing are common, you could take the approach of combining several versions of similar comments into an anonymised exemplar. As a reader of your article, I don't think direct quotes would mean that much to me compared to an 'ensemble'. I have had comments in reviews that were so off as to break satire, so I don't think believability will be an issue.

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