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I am from a country where humor is a part of the culture, and I recently prepared the following referee report:

The manuscript solves an interesting problem, but, unfortunately, the authors are a bit late with their study. The very same problem and the same results were described just half a century ago by XXX, Journal of XXX (1969). Like the manuscript under review, that paper ... <details>

It was a very important problem at the time, but the research field of XXX has somewhat evolved since then, so I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage the authors to catch up with the recent progress and do something on the cutting edge of research.

The idea was to use a humorously gentle style to jokingly portray the authors as stuck in the old era, especially given that they are now professors in their 60s or 70s. "Just" half a century is a huge time period, and the research field has evolved beyond what people could even imagine back then.

To clarify, the problem solved in the manuscript isn't something everyone in this research field knows about. I myself didn't know about that problem when I received the manuscript for review. However, I checked the literature and found that paper in about 20 minutes. The paper is highly cited and was helpful in solving various problems when the fundamentals of the research field were laid. It looks like the professors made an attempt to do something fundamental and failed to properly check the literature first.

Considering the authors and the editor are not from my country and might find such a style inappropriate or even offending, I rewrote the report in a rather boring manner with a bit of empathy:

The manuscript solves an interesting problem, but, unfortunately, this problem has already been solved in the literature. <details>

On the bright side, I can confirm that the authors' solution and conclusions are correct. I would be happy to recommend this manuscript for publication if the problem had not already been solved.

I sent the latter version and now feel that I may have played it too safe. My original report could have made a day for the editor and convincingly taught the professors an important lesson. I feel very tempted to use my original style in similar circumstances in the future.

My question is addressed to people who have worked on editorial boards. Are reports like my original version acceptable? What are the policies and practices regarding this? As an editor, what would you do upon receiving such a referee report?


P.S. I don't want to specify my country, because I don't want to start a discussion about its culture and people. My question is about humor in referee reports.

Please don't be too hard on me if my original version is highly inappropriate. After all, I didn't send it. I'm asking this question to ensure I won't do anything wrong in the future.

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    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 3, 2023 at 10:44

11 Answers 11

159

You were right to change it. The worst thing that could happen is that the authors feel like you are trying to make a dig at their ability. The best thing is that.. someone might find the comment slightly amusing.

I am also from a country where humour is 'part of the culture', but I find the comment slightly patronising and rude, and not particularly funny either. People underestimate the degree to which humour gets lost over formats like email compared to spoken word. This is particularly the case when interacting with people from other countries and cultures.

Play it safe and be nice to people.

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  • 8
    Completely agree with this comment. You did right by taking time to assess the situation. While their conundrum might be amusing, firstly, it's hard to read the tone from written text, secondly, when the joke is on them it can be hard to see it as funny. Play it safe and be nice really is the way to go. Maybe if a joke is on you or someone who can't get hurt (eg, historical figures), it could be a refreshing addition.
    – vspmis
    Jun 21, 2023 at 6:32
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    When writing a comment like this, you can hear it in a light-hearted tone of voice, if that's what you're thinking, and that just barely might be appropriate. When reading it, a rather sarcastic tone comes naturally, even when we're forewarned that it's meant to be humorous. I hear it in something close to the voice of a professor known for making unnecessarily cutting remarks even to junior members of the group, in public - and I'm sure we've all met someone like that.
    – Chris H
    Jun 21, 2023 at 8:42
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    The one thing I would add to this is to keep in mind the likely state of mind that the recipient would be in. Are they likely to want a joke? Or are they going to be possibly in a foul mood because of the bad news you're bringing, or possibly just in a "I just want to get this done so I can go home" mood. It's extremely grating to have a joke forced on you when you're not in the mood for it, and there's no way to know whether the reader will be in the mood for it.
    – yshavit
    Jun 21, 2023 at 18:59
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    To add, there is almost no scenario in life in which people are (understandably) more sensitive and on edge than during the harsh and raw process of manuscript review. It just in our nature. Always be as gentle as you reasonably can, as even the most seemingly benign of comments can cut someone like a razor during review. So taking the time to evaluate things like this is essential. The idea of using humor to soften the blow of such a major flaw in their work is a good thought in theory, but not in practice, as it will most likely not be received as it was intended.
    – Jerome
    Jun 21, 2023 at 19:20
  • But then the paper is about something proven 50 years ago. So humour or not, it’s only what the author deserved.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 22, 2023 at 16:30
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The idea was to use a humorously gentle style to jokingly portray the authors as stuck in the old era, especially given that they are now professors in their 60s or 70s

Humor is fine. The problem is not that you are using humor. The problem is that there is no way to tell from the written text that it was meant to be interpreted as "humorously gentle style".

You are making the common mistake of imagining that the reader is going to read what you wrote in the same mental voice that you used when you were writing it. This is not at all the case. In an in-person interaction, you can rely on non-verbal cues to convey the information that you do not mean to disparage the authors. But this information is completely lost in written text. You are severely overestimating your ability to do convey your mental voice in written text if you assume that reasonable readers will interpret your text as "humorously gentle style".

Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that, unlike you, I am a mean-spirited referee who thinks that the authors are idiots and who wants to skewer them mercilessly in my report. Suppose that to this end, I write the following in the report, hinting at the fact the authors are idiots for doing something that has been done half a century ago:

The manuscript solves an interesting problem, but, unfortunately, the authors are a bit late with their study. The very same problem and the same results were described just half a century ago by XXX, Journal of XXX (1969). Like the manuscript under review, that paper ...

It was a very important problem at the time, but the research field of XXX has somewhat evolved since then, so I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage the authors to catch up with the recent progress and do something on the cutting edge of research.

Now ask yourself: how exactly is the recipient of the report supposed to distinguish between your "humorously gentle style" and my "sarcastic and biting style"?

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    «…the authors are a bit late with their study…» then adding «just half a century ago by XXX, Journal of XXX (1969)» is where I guess the “humour” lies (hidden). It's actually very easy to interpret it as sarcasm rather than being cheeky, or an example of good-natured teasing.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 21, 2023 at 5:22
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    @gidds Poe's law is more about satire, which might or might not have humorous intent. The real problem here is that in this case the "joke" is only funny if it is directed at someone else.
    – Nobody
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:57
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    @xReprisal "what kind of people would read it in the negative light." someone who has just had their paper rejected? "The world is as you are" the problem with that is that most academics are not "as they [normally] are" when they have just had a paper rejected - they are temporarily in a worse mood than usual. It also applies to making the joke, we also make the world as we are, and sometimes we need to self-censor to prevent the world from becoming a worse place because of our thoughtlessness/lack of consideration for others. Jun 22, 2023 at 12:22
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    My rule of thumb for humor in an academic context is that you can joke about your own work, but avoid joking about others'. A pun here and there is fine, but you don't want to look like you're calling into question a fellow scholar's competence or like you're not taking their work seriously.
    – Syncrossus
    Jun 23, 2023 at 13:36
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    @DikranMarsupial that's a great point, haven't thought about it from that perspective.
    – xReprisal
    Jun 23, 2023 at 14:02
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The reviewer of a paper is in a privileged position. It's their prerogative to advise the editor whether the author of the paper should have a good day or a crappy day, and while their power isn't absolute the relationship between reviewer and author is decidedly unequal.

So when attempting humor, consider the likelihood that your jokes will be interpreted as 'punching down', as having cruel fun by denigrating someone who can't fight back. In that light, your original version does come off as unkind. (Well, it comes off as confusing and poorly phrased. But if you look past that, it comes off as unkind.)

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    Very well said. You can be humorous, if you have to, if your review is positive, but shy away from it if it is not. The authors will not find it funny. Maybe they worked for 2 years on this and being told off like little boys is not nice. Sometimes people from other fields realise that a problem is long solved in a different type of language. Bad luck, but don't compound this by also laughing at them. This comes across as "Schadenfreude" (google it). Jun 20, 2023 at 18:20
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    (or epicaricacy)
    – TOOGAM
    Jun 20, 2023 at 23:19
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Humor is great! But there is a time and a place for it, and your use falls outside of the range of situations in which it is appropriate.

By way of illustration, the following are situations where the use of humor is inadvisable:

  • When informing an author that you are recommending their paper be rejected

  • When firing an employee

  • When breaking up with a romantic partner

  • When you are a doctor telling a patient that they have a life threatening illness, or need major surgery, or similarly grave news

The common denominator in these situations is that you are about to deliver news to someone that can come as a major blow to their ego, self-esteem, livelihood, prospects for professional success, prospects for happiness, etc. You need to expect that, regardless of their culture and how humor-loving it is, upon hearing this kind of news the person is not going to be in the mood for joking around! For that reason, making light of the bad news you are communicating to them is tone-deaf and highly unempathetic; it will almost certainly make them even more upset than they would be if the news were delivered in a dry, humorless way.

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    Dilbert covered this rather well…
    – gidds
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:17
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Very interesting perspective, thanks for sharing this!

I am not an editor, but author and reviewer. With my personal cultural background and in my discipline, I would not have had understood that your remarks were meant humorous.

As an author to get the original reply, I would feel that you are talking down on me.

As a reviewer, I would (in my discipline) always stick to a very formal, positive, and precise tone. In your case, I understand, that it is not easy to tell some people, that are in the field for many years, that they did a beginner's mistake: bad literature research. However, the way you solved it seems good to me.

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Humour is totally fine.

However, there is a mismatch between the question title and the example provided, which is irony and it sounds both rude and condescending.

irony : humour = laughing at someone : laughing with someone

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    Irony is not about laughing at someone. From Wikipedia: Irony, in its broadest sense, is the juxtaposition of what on the surface appears to be the case and what is actually the case or to be expected; [..].
    – usr1234567
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:22
  • @usr1234567 it's not by chance that wikipedia has a section Definitions for irony. Which kind of irony is OP using, and why, according to the different types of irony postulated in the Wikipedia page you mention? Irony can be categorized into different types, including verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 21, 2023 at 11:44
  • @EarlGrey Those are all subtypes of irony, and fall under the same broad definition. Jun 21, 2023 at 16:11
  • @Feathercrown what is the broad definition? What has been posted here by the commenter is just half of the preamble to the definitions of irony. Additionally, if OP is using irony as described in wikipedia preamble, the sentence "The manuscript solves an interesting problem, " means exactly the contrary, i.e. "The manuscript is not solving an interesting problem" where the laughing resides in "laughing at the authors of the paper because they spent so much time in such a non-interesting problem already solved 50 years ago"...
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 22, 2023 at 7:33
  • @EarlGrey I don't deny that the humor is ill-advised Jun 22, 2023 at 15:21
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The issue here is not humour, but context - or lack thereof, because text-based communication generally cannot convey context due to its very nature. On the internet emoticons like ;) are used to provide that context, but the very nature of academia precludes the use of such context clues.

There is another way to convey context via text, and that's if you have an existing relationship with the person(s) you're communicating with. In that case context will be implicit to that relationship, which can assist the others in interpreting your intended tone - but is still not a guarantee that they'll get it right.

Given the above, the readers of your report are going to be coming in effectively context-blind when they read your comment, which means they're likely going to take it at face value. And at face value, your "humourous" comment... isn't; my (completely unreasonably cynical) interpretation of it would be "you idiots failed to do basic research, with the result that you completely wasted my time on reviewing a paper that doesn't need to exist".

There's a time and place for (attempts at) humour, but refereeing is not it.

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  • Self deprecating humour might be fine in reviewing, but probably not worthwhile. Jun 22, 2023 at 12:33
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A nice example of humour (IMHO) which actually didn't make it into the referee's text is due to Paul Halmos:

'I remember one occasion when I tried to add a little seasoning to a review, but I wasn't allowed to. The paper was by Dorothy Maharam, and it was a perfectly sound contribution to abstract measure theory. The domains of the underlying measures were not sets but elements of more general Boolean algebras, and their range consisted not of positive numbers but of certain abstract equivalence classes. My proposed first sentence was: "The author discusses valueless measures in pointless spaces."'

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My personal approach would be to avoid humor in a referee role.

A publication record can be critically important in academic situations. In some situations it can make the difference between getting a grant and not getting a grant, or keeping a job or entering the job market. People in such situations may not appreciate efforts at humor. Even if you're offering a completely positive review, other reviewers may put publication in jeopardy, leaving an author nonreceptive to the humor a referee may offer.

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I am not on a review board, but I have authored or co-authored a lot of papers and I do statistical reviews for a couple of journals (over 1000 reviews by now).

A couple thoughts:

  1. The authors are quite likely to be from another country. Even if their English is quite fluent in the paper (and I've read lots of papers where that is not the case), fluency in an academic style is quite different from overall fluency. Also, it could well be that some of the authors are much less fluent.

  2. Even among totally fluent speakers, humor translates badly from one culture to another. To see this, read some comedy from 1600.

  3. Many authors, when they see that envelope (or e-mail address) from the journal are in a highly fragile state. Maybe the author is just fine with humor in their everyday life, often joking with their colleagues and friends. But ... this isn't normal times.

  4. The usual tone of a review is formal.

So .... I would avoid any humor at all. For some journals, you can communicate to the editor separately from the authors. That's a place for humor. Or, you can joke around with colleagues:

"You'll never guess what some guy sent in as a paper!"

Finally, on a purely personal note, way back when I was 12 or so, I proved a theorem about the Fibonacci numbers. My math teacher joked about how it was already proven, long ago. That did not make me feel good.

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I don't think you're supposed to talk about this on a public forum. So don't put it in the report, otherwise they could find the sentence here…

Anyway I don't think it was a good idea. No need to hurt the author, who may simply not have been able to explain what's new in his work.

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