I have been reading about how authors deal with negative peer reviewer comments. This got me wondering what kind of reviewer comments would authors consider as negative? Of course, most authors would consider harsh or rude comments as negative, but I feel that harsh comments, if directed at improving the paper, are at least better than dismissive or superficial comments that do not add any value to the paper. What kind of reviewer comments would you categorize as negative?

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    I am voting to close this question as primarily opinion-based as it is a poll or survey and there cannot be a definite answer. – Wrzlprmft Aug 3 '15 at 15:04
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    @Wrzlprmft I strongly disagree: I think there's a lot of good ways to answer this question generally. – jakebeal Aug 3 '15 at 15:31
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    @jakebeal: I am not entirely sure what you mean by this, but if there are several good ways to answer a question, this is not necessarily a good thing. Also, take a look at the existing answers: Two reduce the question to the definition of the word negative (which is clearly off-topic) and one (yours) addresses a different question, which is however still opinion-based in my opinion. – Wrzlprmft Aug 3 '15 at 16:40
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    @jakebeal "What would you consider" is a crystal-clear request for personal opinions. – David Richerby Aug 3 '15 at 17:06
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    I agree with the close votes and have been waiting to cast the last vote. This is exactly the kind of question described in the help center. The number of potentially valid answers is unbounded, and so questions like these tend to attract a steady stream of low-quality answers that just keep being added to the end without anyone reading the existing answers. It's a perfectly suitable discussion topic for a forum, but it doesn't belong on a Q&A site. – ff524 Aug 3 '15 at 17:25

When reading reviewer feedback, I generally divide things up into five mental categories (sorted from best to worst):

  • Praise: It feels really good when a reviewer "gets" a paper.
  • Little stuff: Anything that can be cleaned up easily, like typos and grammar failures, dropped minus signs, mislabeled figures.
  • Suggestions for improvement: Things that are legitimate issues, but are reasonable to push off to future work if necessary.
  • Legitimate complaints: This is where a reviewer points out actual significant problems with one's work. If you were unaware of them before, or thought they were less important than the reviewer explains them to be, then this can really sting, but it's a reasonable judgement.
  • Nasty, unfair reviewer #3: This is the stuff that really burns, when a reviewer seems to have an personal agenda or grudge and is taking it out on your paper. A recent example I encountered included the phrase: "All the hard questions are systematically discarded."

What's very difficult, as an author, is distinguishing between suggestions for improvement, legitimate complaints, and unfair reviewing. This is particularly true when things are presented harshly: I find a major difference between directness (which raises a clear issue about the science) and harshness (which might or might not be clear, but is presented with a side-dish of personal attack).

However, especially when it comes to things where you have feelings like "but it's obvious!" or "but we already addressed that!" or "they must not have read the paper carefully!", there is usually a legitimate difference of viewpoint, which it's important to figure out how to overcome.

That's why I always read feedback more than once, at at least a couple of days separation. The first reading lets you see how much the review is praise vs. little stuff vs. the other three categories. At that point, though, you're generally too emotionally involved and reacting (particularly if you got a rejection) to distinguish which category the issues raised by the reviewers actually fall into. A couple of days distance, though, and I find it much more possible to parse out the different strands of negativity, figuring out which are legitimate, which are unfair, and which are more appropriate to push off to address other papers.

  • Thanks for your insightful answer. I agree there's a lot of difference between a direct comment and a harsh one. I also feel that a direct comment that clearly points out where the author has gone wrong is much more valuable than comments that are polite but superficial. I work with authors from cultures that are big on the politeness issue. I sometimes find it difficult to convince authors that direct comments are better than vague ones. – Kakoli Majumder Aug 4 '15 at 6:41

Reviewer's comments should ideally be constructive. They should not just point out the flaws but ideally, it could also provide some suggestions or briefly comment about how to fix these flaws or improve the paper. Reviews should discuss strengths and weaknesses of a paper objectively.

What is a negative comment? It could be just rude or harsh comments as pointed out in the question. An author could also perceive as negative some suggestions that requires to rewrite or delete content in the paper, or that criticize any decisions made by the researchers (weak litterature review, poor experimental design, etc.). Also, if a paper is very weak, a very negative comment could be to not publish the paper because it has no scientific value. Basically, what is perceived as negative by an author is subjective and could be any comment that criticize the paper or requires to change it/reject it or shorten it, and any comment that is harsh, rude or not written in a constructive way.

  • Thanks for your answer. I agree that any comment that is not constructive can be considered as a negative comment. – Kakoli Majumder Aug 4 '15 at 6:29

tl;dr - everything useless for improvement = negative

For me this is more a question of consequence than of "form" (style of writing, word choice). (Here I agree @Wrzlprmft's warning, that answers can be very opinion-based)

From a (tried) objective view, I categorize comments as negative if they:

  • criticize without suggestions or advice to improve the submission
    • e.g. something like "the paper misses other important relevant sources" with a peer not naming these sources or providing references
  • praise without pointing out a special issue (form, content, relevance etc.)
    • e.g. "really like this paper, go on like this" ... (really? no suggestions for improvement? has my peer really read it, or was he/she just lazy?)

(I recieved both kinds of comments for my last submission, one super critic, one super praising, but both super duper useless)

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    So a comment like "The paper is very well-written." is negative to you? – Mangara Aug 3 '15 at 15:43
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    Thank you for your answer. I find this perspective very interesting, and it is an extension of the idea that was bothering me: that negative comments need not always be harsh; comments that do not add any value to the paper, even if they are polite or express appreciation, can be construed as negative. I agree with you that a simple word of praise is not enough, the peer reviewer should at least explain what I have done correctly, so that I can do those things the same way in my future papers. – Kakoli Majumder Aug 4 '15 at 6:26
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    @Mangara... ah... as I read your comment a second and third time: your example contains a point to some specific property of a paper (I missed that before): "well-written" states about a strength to keep or develop further (good writing skills). regarding to my answer your example would be a useful comment, because it suggests to keep the writing style. – André Kleinschmidt Aug 4 '15 at 7:53

I don't understand whether you're asking about my subjective emotional reaction to reviewer statements, or my rational evaluation of the objective content of the statement. So I would assume you're asking about both.

Basically, any comment that suggests a flaw in my data, analysis or reasoning is emotionally negative: I freely accept corrections of typos, with no emotional entailments. This would include criticisms of framework (as a subcase of flaws of reasoning, since I use reason to select my framework).

After I set aside emotional reactions and focus on objective content, comments are sorted into two groups, valid and invalid. Valid comments (e.g. I got a fact wrong, I messed up the logic, the section is actually unclear) are positive, because they make me aware of things that I must change and would have avoided. In the remaining, objectively invalid comments, which would be negative, they can again be divided into the trivially-disposable and those that, again, cause significant negative emotional reaction. A request to add a gratuitous reference to Smith (2012) might be trivially disposed of by acceding or resisting, depending on the details (e.g. is Smith (2012) actually relevant or valid?; is it just one of hundreds of studies of equal value?). A request to expand the coverage could be easy to satisfy so I might throw in a couple of additional examples (if not also under the "and cut 12 pages" gun), but not if it required adding a couple of ultimately irrelevant pages chasing a hypothetical rabbit.

This leaves seriously annoying invalid comments, such as framework-attacks ("I don't like your metatheory, recast this in theory Y"), professional-competence attacks ("why should we trust your data") and sociological attacks ("most people don't care about this"). I would call these the "truly negative" comments, as opposed to the mildly annoying ones. What characterizes them is that they are based on something that is plainly false, such as invalid logic or assumptions (e.g. in a theory journal, assuming that a paper must demonstrate a practical application) or egregious factual error (usually of the form "X has shown that Y" when X has merely hinted that Y might be true).

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