While it is generally accepted to write papers using the collective we, what is a common practice for writing peer-reviews: I, this reviewer, or something else?

For example,

This reviewer has a minor concern with how pink elephants are defined in this paper. It would have been helpful if authors defined an elephant first, and then added the color pink.

I have a minor concern with how pink elephants are described in this paper. My recommendation is to define an elephant first, and then add the color pink.

  • 13
    This user would find a review using constructions like "This reviewer" extremely strange. Jul 24 '14 at 13:07
  • 5
    Since it sounds like you're a first-time reviewer and that you've not received many reviews of your own papers, I'm guessing you're a PhD student. I'd strongly advise that you have a chat with your advisor about what is expected when reviewing papers. Obviously, do continue to ask any specific questions here, but a general chat with somebody who is already familiar with reviewing in your field will be very helpful to you. Jul 24 '14 at 18:29
  • 3
    @DavidRicherby I just graduated. The reason I asked the question was because my adviser always required me to use "this reviewer" phrase, while I have never seen the style in the reviewers I received, and it does not match my style. Now, that I am on my own and forming my own style, I thought I would ask a larger community for feedback.
    – Orion
    Jul 24 '14 at 18:58
  • @Orion OK -- that makes sense. Since your advisor's use of the phrase "This reviewer" seems a little unusual, it might be worth having a general chat with somebody else, too. Jul 24 '14 at 19:18

I recommend the first person. Like most good linguistic constructions, the reader passes over it without explicitly noticing it, whereas your first construction with "this reviewer" holds up the entire mental process for a split second.

The idea of using the third person to "soften" the criticism: well, Paul Garrett knows how much I esteem him, and we usually see eye-to-eye on things. But this time I simply disagree. The reviewer is empowered -- nay, enjoined -- to supply an opinion on the work. If you want to shade your opinion, explain very carefully and explicitly why you are doing that. Switching to the third person should not convey that you are less sure of yourself, and it does not convey that to my ear.

[Imagine my answer began with "This academic". Wouldn't that have been more distracting?]

  • 2
    Even though (in math) I always know the names of the authors, I do always refer to them as "the author" or "the authors". Jul 24 '14 at 0:55
  • 2
    I wouldn't even say the criticism is always "softened" by using the third person. I emphasizes that the statement expresses one person's subjective opinion, which may well be unreasonable or different from other people's opinions. This reviewer, on the other hand, emphasizes the position the person is in, thereby underlining the implicit assumption of authority and making the criticism kind of irrevocable, much more severe than with the I. Jul 24 '14 at 8:50
  • 4
    Unrelated to that, I'm not sure I'd consider passive voice the correct term here. Jul 24 '14 at 8:51
  • 2
    @O.R.Mapper Indeed: it's the third person, not the passive voice. The passive voice is the construction "This sentence was written in the passive voice", as distinct from the normal "I am writing this sentence in the active voice." In the passive, the natural object of the verb ("write") becomes the subject of the sentence. Jul 24 '14 at 9:06
  • 1
    @O.R. Mapper: Yes, you're right. Looking back at my answer, I was even a bit surprised to see that I had used the term. Jul 25 '14 at 15:46

I have a third take on the issue: this is not about the reviewer nor the author, is about the work and as such, I think that it should be the subject of the sentence:

The paper could benefit from a redefinition of pink elephants, possibly defining elephants in general at first and then by adding the color pink

In my opinion this has the benefit of making the review less personal and make it come through as more objective.

  • This is, of course, always the best option, and it is good to be stated. However, my question was intended for the situations when you want or need to add a personal take.
    – Orion
    Jul 24 '14 at 15:36
  • 3
    Shades of meaning. If I think something is very unclear, I'll say that "The definition of pink elephants is unclear": that makes it fairly clear that I think it's the authors' fault I couldn't understand their definition. If I think it might be me being a bit dim, I'll say that "I found the definition of pink elephants hard to follow." Bear in mind that a review is, explicitly, a personal opinion on the paper. Sometimes, it's not really appropriate to make your subjective opinions look objective by writing in the style of "The definition is unclear." Jul 24 '14 at 18:34
  • @DavidRicherby I was following the example provided in the question and in that case it seems to me that an impersonal take would fit better. The meaning of the review does not change, how it is received by the author does.
    – Federico
    Jul 24 '14 at 18:57
  • @Federico Whether you say "This reviewer thinks the definition is unclear" or "I think it's unclear" makes no difference. But "This definition is unclear" does carry a different weight, by being presented as an objective fact rather than a personal opinion. Jul 24 '14 at 19:20
  • 2
    @Federico You seem to be saying that it's always better to write reviews in the style of "The definition is unclear" rather than "I found the definition unclear"; you say that this comes across as less personal and more objective. I disagree. The "I found the definition unclear" phrasing carries a different meaning and you should use whatever phrasing carries the meaning you intend to convey. Reviews are necessarily subjective and phrasing a subjective judgement as if it were an objective fact is not necessarily accurate. Jul 24 '14 at 19:38

If you're writing a review that will be read only by the editor, you can use "I", but if you want to simplify the editor's life by giving them something to cut-and-paste, or forward, to the author:

In English, in mathematics at least, the contemporary style for publicly-consumed reviews seems to be to refer to oneself, the reviewer, as "this reviewer". Thus, "in the opinion of this reviewer...", "this reviewer cannot understand why the author is so dense..." :)

There are some observable exceptions, where a reviewer is enough of a big-shot to not merely "suggest" that the author has erred, but to be snarky about it, and in either first person, or an exaggerated third-person. My own opinion is that it is not nice to do this. That is, a forthright voice is best, and choice of voice not depending on status is tasteful.

  • 4
    Does "publicly-consumed" mean "will be seen by the author" or "will be seen by everyone" (such as for the AMS Bulletin or Math Reviews)? As an author, I've certainly received reviews of my papers written in first person. Jul 24 '14 at 0:12
  • 6
    I don't think the difference between first and third person should have anything to do with the amount of confidence in the assertion. Moreover, referring to oneself in the third person is in most contexts awkward and stilted. There are places in which it is done as sort of an in-joke or hat-tip to the format: e.g. journalists sometimes refer to "this reporter"; in MathReviews one often speaks of "this reviewer". But I think that's an affectation, which happens to in certain very specific circles be accepted. In a referee report I would (and do) certainly write "I". Jul 24 '14 at 0:16
  • 1
    On MathSciNet I do avoid "I" and "We* in reviews. Jul 24 '14 at 0:59
  • 3
    I think the editors of Mathematical Reviews (= MathSciNet) routinely change "I" and "we" to "the reviewer". As for referee reports, I don't think I ever explicitly thought about how to refer to myself, but, looking back at a sample of reports that I've written, I found that I consistently used the first person. Jul 24 '14 at 3:48
  • 3
    I don't see any need to write in the third person just because the editor is going to forward your report to the authors. The authors understand perfectly well that, if a referee report says "I think your paper is awesome", it means the referee, not the editor. Most reviews I receive are written in the first person. Jul 24 '14 at 7:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.