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(Asking on behalf of a friend.)

I work in math, in a field where reviews are not double-blind: reviewers are anonymous, but review copies of papers include attribution. I’ve received several reviews recently (on different submissions) which were similar in style, all negative, and rather light on substantive criticisms. The other reviews for those submissions were generally positive.

I’m rather concerned that they’re from a single reviewer with a grudge against me — it’s a small field, so one can easily encounter the same reviewer/author repeatedly — and I have some suspicion of who this reviewer might be (though far from certain).

Is there any defensive action I can take on future submissions — anything I can say to the editor at some stage to avoid getting shot down by this same reviewer again?

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    Do the journals you submit to allow you to specify a list of individuals that you do not want to review your manuscript? This is an option with most journals I'm familiar with (but the journals may throw these lists in the garbage can for all I know). – Mad Jack Nov 22 '15 at 0:55
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    @MadJack Actually if you ask that someone will not review the paper, there's a good chance the editor will accept your request. – Gimelist Nov 22 '15 at 1:45
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    I think this needs to be asked: Are you sure that following these "light criticisims" wouldn't improve the overall quality of your paper? Maybe the reviewer has no grudge against you personally, but against certain writing styles or habits (such as frequent parenthetical statements), and is therefore trying to be more helpful than negative. I'm not insisting that's the case, but it's not an outlandish possibility – your friend wouldn't be the first to confuse a constructive critique with negative criticism. – J.R. Nov 22 '15 at 9:55
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    @SalvadorDali - Actually, people who've been on SE for long enough are very well familiar with these "friends". Happens on all SE sites AFAIK. – 299792458 Nov 23 '15 at 17:54
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    @J.R. They said "all negative, and light on substantive criticisms", not 'the reviews only provide light criticisms' or whatever. – underscore_d Nov 24 '15 at 12:51
38

I've had a similar experience, but on the other side of the table. I was the reviewer (the journal was JAES, the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society).

There was an author who published a boat-load of papers on a subject where I have published just one. But my paper dealt with some very fundamental issues (I called the paper "Wavetable Synthesis 101, A Fundamental Approach" or similar). The AES Editor did not send any of this author's papers in my direction and when enough of these papers that made only incremental advancements did get published in the Journal, I finally wrote a Letter to the Editor (that was published) that was a little critical, because this author consistently ignored a mathematical issue (phase) that my 101 paper did not.

Anyway, after about the 10th or 15th new Wavetable paper to come from this author, the JAES editor did finally send a manuscript to me to review. I was not nasty, but I did continue to point out what this author was obstinately choosing to side step (offering no mathematical justification).

I am sure the author knew who that reviewer was, even though I was supposed to be anonymous.

So, if the reviewer with a grudge is picking on you for just anything, maybe the reviewer just doesn't like you and there could be any number of bad reasons. Maybe he/she thinks you're encroaching on his/her turf and/or hadn't paid your dues yet. Maybe this reviewer wants to be cited by you where he isn't. Who knows?

But if this reviewer is picking on you for about the same reason, on these multiple submitted manuscripts, I might, if I were you, think about what that particular reason is and answer it one way or another. One might be a consistent technical omission. Or maybe, just like the "bad reviewer" above, this reviewer thinks you're missing critical citations and his/her work is among the missed citations.

Whether the reviewer has a grudge or not, he/she is not the only reviewer. But you still are obligated to take seriously every criticism and suggestion for improvement offered by the reviewers. It doesn't mean that you will agree with every one, but then be prepared to respond to each critique or suggestion that you disagree with. Persuade the reviewer, the other co-reviewer (who is not picking on you) and the editor, that the critique is mistaken.

Finally, if, after all this, you feel that this reviewer is useless, find some way of asking the journal's editor or assistant editor (whoever has dispatched your submission to whoever appropriate reviewers) to consider getting a third or fourth opinion. Even suggest a couple of persons in the field that you respect but make sure they are not in the same institution you are in nor have ever co-authored a paper with you.

31

Quick and dirty solution:

Since you know (or at least have strong indication about) who this "unfriendly" reviewer is, you can do as following. Upload the paper to the arXiv, then send the paper to this unfriendly colleague before submitting to the journal, asking for criticism/comments. After that put the name of this colleague in the acknowledgement section.

Usually editors do not send a paper to a guy who has been named in that section.

PS: You may, or may not, consider the criticism of this unfriendly colleague in the revised version of your paper.

PS: It could be a good idea to discuss personally with this colleague, in a conference, or even by inviting them at your research institution (if you can). In this way you can have a thorough and deep discussion about your work. Perhaps you will discover that their criticism is not a grudge, but it is based on serious issues. In any case you will learn from that criticism and improve your work.

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    I think it's a bad idea to ask people you don't really know to read and provide feedback on an arXiv preprint. For all we know, the person asking this question is a student and the reviewer a well-known person in the field. It could be inappropriate to send such a request. – Pål GD Nov 22 '15 at 23:22
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    You cannot put the name of the reviewer in the acknowledgement section unless the reviewer agrees to be acknowledged. – shadow Nov 23 '15 at 8:24
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    @shadow The proposal is to send the draft to the person who is suspected of being the negative reviewer, and acknowledge them as somebody who provided feedback, not in the role of a reviewer. Obviously, "outing" an anonymous reviewer would be wrong but that's not the situation being suggested. I'm not aware of any obligation to obtain permission before acknowledging somebody. – David Richerby Nov 23 '15 at 9:54
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    This is unlikely to work because, ethically speaking, it requires the person to give sufficiently substantive comments to be worth acknowledging. In my experience the usual response to being sent an unsolicited draft is that the recevier makes some bland comment such as, "Thanks -- looks interesting. I'll be sure to read it." and then either never gets around to reading it or doesn't have anything substantive to say. – David Richerby Nov 23 '15 at 9:57
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    @DavidRicherby I have had better luck with such requests. But I doubt I would if the person already had some grudge against me. – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 23 '15 at 11:12
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Further to the comment by @Michael, you should feel free to write to the editor to ask that any additional submissions you make do not go to the reviewer who is causing trouble. Some comments on this:

Peer review is how we give confidence to the wider community of scientists, and the world at large, that our work is of a high quality. Negative reviews have to be faced and addressed. Sometimes the comments are oblique and insubstantial. Sometimes they are incisive. Weigh up the danger of dismissing this reviewer in future and the positive service he or she could provide, against not having to answer their questions in peer review. This person could throw you their tricky questions via a review of your paper, or, as a question to you after a talk you give at a big international conference. In which manner would you prefer to address such a question?

That said, if the quality of the reviewer's comments have been poor -- as you've suggested in your post -- then you perhaps feel more confident that you -- and, importantly, the journal editor -- aren't getting a good service from the reviewer. If you come to this conclusion, then, by all means, request the editor refrains from sending your future work to this reviewer.

3

Suggest in the covering letter to editor to exclude that particular reviewer from the possible candidates due conflict of interest.

This is a common practice, not to avoid negative reviews but mostly in cases when another group of researchers is working on the same or closely related topic, to prevent conflict of interest. If they are approaching a publication themselves, it is very tempting to delay a publication of the competitor and the neutrality may suffer.

Editors normally pay attention to this and will select an alternative reviewer from (usually) a wide list of other candidates available.

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    But this doesn't sound like a conflict of interest, just somebody with a low opinion of the asker's work. – David Richerby Nov 23 '15 at 9:58
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    I still see this as a conflict of interest, if the reviewer has any (reasonable or not) motivations to provide biased review. Or, if there are problems with the article, another reviewer will also see. – h22 Nov 23 '15 at 10:05
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    You seem to be claiming that any consistent evaluation that somebody's work is of low quality is bias. That is not the case: it may simply be that the work really is of low quality. I agree that what's lacking in this case is the reasoning and justification for the low-scoring reviews and the consistent contradiction with the other referees is a worry. But merely having a low opinion of somebody's work is not, in and of itself, a conflict of interest. – David Richerby Nov 23 '15 at 12:08
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    If the work is really low quality, another reviewer will say this as well so should be no problem. How this could be known by us? – h22 Nov 23 '15 at 18:41

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