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I recently submitted a paper for publication. I was amazed to read the tone of one of the reviewers.

Previously, it was read by a pair of peers. I am completely sure that they would tell me if they found something wrong with the manuscript. Instead, their comments were positive.

This reviewer did not address any specific point of the work, just underestimated it as a whole. I could understand if his/her opinion was that the work is poor overall, but I perceive his/her comments as unnecessarily offensive.

As examples, the review contains the sentences:

It seems to the present referee that the author does not realize what constitutes the fundamental problem of molecular quantum mechanics as related to calculation chemistry.

The simple fact that the author ... and then he picks the "best" through statistics and numerology, reflects his attitude and respect towards the concept of THEORY.

On the contrary, very often my colleagues joke about (and many times we have discussed) my obsession with accuracy and scientific rigor. So, I am very convinced that the manuscript can not have an unusually high lack of rigor.

Although I have already published papers, I am inexperienced in publishing. This was the first time that I did the publishing process by myself.

I wish to know

  • Are these kinds of comments normal from reviewers? If so, what motivates them? I tend to think that the comments should be an objective appreciation of the work and not the author.
  • How are they perceived by the academic community?
  • Should I respond in any way?

Edit:

Just for clarification. I don't have evidence that the reviewer misunderstood the work. The only comment he/she made is the second quote that I previously included in the question. It is noteworthy to say that this point is far away from the central point or incumbency of the paper. The other thing he/she mentioned about the work is related to the title.

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    Related (comic): Therapy – ff524 Jul 8 '16 at 0:21
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    Consider yourself lucky that you got this one specific sentence to reply to. I have seen angry reviews that had no specific criticism whatsoever. – Wrzlprmft Jul 8 '16 at 4:57
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    Isn't the second quote "The simple fact that the author examines 53(!) functionals and then he picks the "best" through statistics and numerology, reflects his attitude and respect towards the concept of THEORY." commenting on a specific point? To me it sounds like the reviewer thinks you are choosing one out of 53 models using way too few data points, or in John von Neumann's words, fitting an elephant and making it wiggle its trunk. – JiK Jul 8 '16 at 11:22
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    @Superbest Typically, picking the best result of some N results means that one is over-fitting a model to available data. E.g. consider running an experiment and saying there is a true effect if p < 0.05. Now, if you do 100 tests, there will be likely 5 false positive results. If you pick the "best" result of the 100, and make conclusions based on that, you are committing a very serious mistake. – mmh Jul 8 '16 at 11:30
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    Just as a note - friends, family and "close" peers are often the worst reviewers of anything. They usually don't want to insult you, or feel they are not qualified to raise issues - and therefore give blanket "All is OK" reviews. – SnakeDoc Jul 8 '16 at 20:05
57

Getting angry reviews that, in your opinion, fail to understand your work is normal. It's sadly part of the territory.

It's hard to say why someone writes an angry review. Maybe they're an angry person, maybe they had a bad day and didn't like your work, or maybe they're one of those "tough love" people and get a little harsh when they disagree about something.

Your best approach is to ignore the tone of the review. If your paper got accepted, celebrate your publication. If you get a rebuttal, try to address their underlying concerns by politely pointing out why they are wrong and you are right.

If you are certain that your work is correct and the reviewer is wrong, think about what in your paper might lead them to believe what they did. If one person thinks you did something wrong, others might too. Consider rewriting that part of the paper to clear up any misunderstandings. It may be time consuming, but it will make your paper all the stronger in the long run.

Not to make any assumptions as to your research ability, but if this is your first time submitting a publication on your own, it is entirely possible that your technique is wrong. You can be rigorous in your approach and still do things incorrectly. It may be worthwhile to approach a more senior researcher that you trust and get their opinion on your paper with respect to the review.

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    Thank you very much Ric. I did not emphasized before correctly. I edited the question. The referee did not addressed anything about the paper. That was what impressed me more. The other reviewer had some concern, that I find debatable, but I respect his position, also he suggested a good improvement. I'm planing to make some points more detailed to stress something that can be missed, and I also add few calculations (that takes me just 2 or 3 days) that he asked to be able to publish the manuscript. I consider that suggestion valuable and good for the completeness of the manuscript. – user57717 Jul 8 '16 at 0:53
  • But, I can not reply. The editor decided automatically to reject the manuscript after the reviews. – user57717 Jul 8 '16 at 0:55
  • @user57717 I'm sorry it was rejected outright. Best of luck with it in the future. – Ric Jul 8 '16 at 3:02
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    "think about what in your paper might lead them to believe what they did". Yes, this. Even entirely incorrect criticisms can be useful, as they may imply that you have not expressed yourself as well as you thought you did. It's no good just being right, you need to convince others as well. – user2390246 Jul 8 '16 at 9:06
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I would like to present an alternative view. Some authors may feel that the reviewer is being angry, when they are in fact just being critical. I'm not saying this applies to your situation, but I think that in many cases, this is worth considering.

The role of a reviewer is to critically evaluate the manuscript. They need to make a recommendation about whether the manuscript should be accepted, subject to revision, or rejected. They also need to identify the problems with the manuscript. Most reviews are blind reviews. Reviewers are typically busy people, who are not being compensated for their work.

Thus, the role requirements and incentives of a reviewer emphasise being critical and making a sound judgement. There is limited incentive for spending extra time being tactful or polite. If they feel that the manuscript is clearly inappropriate, they may not spend lots of additional time providing detailed comments about smaller issues.

In addition, the fact that the process is often double blind or the reviewer does not personally know the author, also means that the reviewer is less clear on the motives of the author. If they perceive a fundamental failure in the manuscript, they may think you are wasting reviewer time: i.e., you should have worked on it longer before submitting the work, or they may wonder whether you are shopping a manuscript around to many different outlets.

Of course, there are plenty of arguments for why a reviewer should be polite and constructive even when they are identifying critical problems. However, it's not their primary goal.

Then there is the psychology of the author who receives a critical rejection. The author has invested a huge amount of energy into the manuscript and reads a set of critical comments from a reviewer who seemingly fails to notice all that is good in the manuscript. In daily life we rarely encounter the brutal honesty associated with a critical reviewer. The author also often wants to believe that they have done good work and their manuscript is good. Thus, the author may perceive the comments of the reviewer as inappropriate and "angry", when in fact they are just being critical.

The reviews you get on your manuscript are going to vary in quality, informational content, and so on. Very occasionally, you might get a malicious reviewer; much more common are slightly incompetent reviewers, or rushed reviewers, or brutally critical reviewers; or some combination of those three.

However, most of the time even with very negative reviews, you have the opportunity to think about how that impression was formed. Could you have made your arguments clearer? Could you have framed the paper differently? Is there a critique that this reviewer is raising that you could present a counter-argument to in the paper? The point is to learn something from the critique, and the thing you should learn is often implicit. It's not always the overt point made by the reviewer. Ultimately, there are many journals and most journals send articles out to more than one reviewer; so even if the reviewer is wrong, if you are right the manuscript will ultimately find a home.

  • The double-blindness seems to depend a lot of the field. I've never seen a double-blind review for biology, for example, but CS submissions are often double-blinded. – Matt Jul 11 '16 at 8:55
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Is it normal this kind of comments from reviewers?

It is quite common to get hostile reviews. They are not supposed to be angry, usually it is expected that reviewers stay calm and dispassionate as a matter of professionalism. Sometimes they don't.

If so, what motivate it?

Maybe you have made some glaring errors that are so bad the reviewer was infuriated. Maybe they just really don't like you and decided to find some flaws just to ruin your perfectly good manuscript. Maybe they were having a bad day and felt like taking it out on something. Who knows?

I tend to think that the comments should be objective appreciation of the work and not the author.

Reviewer comments don't have to be objective. One key point of reviews is whether the paper is interesting and important enough to be in that journal. Importance and interest are of course subjective notions.

Likewise, if the author seriously misunderstands the existing theory of their domain, this is a valid criticism. At best they need to rewrite the paper to avoid saying factually incorrect things, at worst their whole work is unfounded. This is of course assuming the author actually did misunderstand something important - oftentimes people say you misunderstand something simply because they don't like what you propose, not because you actually misunderstand it.

How are they perceived by the academic community?

You're not supposed to write angry reviews, this is considered unprofessional even if justified. However, in science many people have strong opinions about things, and these people may like seeing someone scolded over their pet peeve. They may publicly claim they disapprove of the behavior, but secretly support it.

That is to say, don't count on the editor saying "What a jerk, he's bullying the poor author for no reason". He might as well say "He sure showed that fool! Well done!".

Should I respond in any way?

In your example, the reviewer seems to take issue with your fundamental approach. I'm not familiar with the field, but when many competing methods for solving a problem exist, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to examine them all and pick the best one. Of course, if one picks the best by picking the one that gives the results most supporting one's hypothesis, that is circular reasoning with little scientific value. The "best" approach should be chosen on independent criteria.

Since the reviewer says "numerology", I would guess that they consider your approach unscientific in this sense. They appear to imply that you have simply tried several methods until you got lucky and found one that coincidentally supports your claim, not because your claim is correct, but because several of these methods have probabilistic errors, and this one happened to give a chance misleading result. If this is true, then you might want to follow a more rigorous approach to choosing a functional (whatever that is). If it is not true, you should take steps to convince the reviewer that your results are in fact genuine and not coincidental - a classic example can be found in multiple hypothesis testing.

It sounds like you believe the criticisms are unjustified (and otherwise you would probably not submit this question). In your brief excerpt, the reviewer's tone also seems quite hostile, so it's hard to imagine what you could possibly do so wrong that they got so angry. In that case you have a reviewer being unfairly hostile. Your best option is to provide arguments supporting your position, and hope that the editor will take your side. You could complain (to the editor) that the reviewer is being unfair, but that could make you look just as bad, so I wouldn't recommend it (but I also wouldn't recommend against it). A more constructive thing would be to ask the reviewer what you could do to address their concern: If they are sincere, they should suggest a reasonable change that will fix the problem and make everyone happy. If they say something unreasonable like "Scrap the paper, scrap your research, go back to school and retake chemistry 101" then it will be obvious to the editor that they are biased; even a sympathetic person will be put off by such arrogance.

  • Thank you for your reply. I add some info. in the answer, I wish to know your thoughts. – user57717 Jul 8 '16 at 14:16
  • @user57717 Considering your edits, I have no idea why the reviewer could have been so upset. There is nothing in your description that indicates the approach was atrociously unsound or unscientific. Sounds like the reviewer was just looking for someone to get mad at. – Superbest Jul 12 '16 at 2:53
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This answer is based on mainly one small detail in your question: The fact that the word theory in the quote of the review is written in capitals. Judging from the quote only, it appears that the reviewer was addressing exactly one point of the paper: its theoretical depth, which he considered insufficient. Does the journal in question have the word "Theory" in his title? If so, it's probably better to select another one for publication.

@Ric wrote that you can be rigorous and still do it incorrectly. I'd like to modify that: You can be rigorous and do it correctly, but still use an experimental approach and not a theoretical one. Correct me if I'm wrong, but investigating 53 samples (in your case functionals) and then picking the best according to some measure sounds very experimental to me.

Have you considered the possibility that the reviewer just picked an incredibly bad way to tell you that your approach does not fit the standards / expected contents of the journal? Maybe he recently received a lot of papers he considered "unworthy" and eventually got frustrated about "everyone wasting his time"? Maybe he just had a bad day?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I approve of the review as is - in the situation I describe in my answer, a simple "does not meet the scope of the journal" would have been both more helpful and less insulting. But reviewers are people, too, so unfortunately, such things may always happen.

  • Thank you. Yes, if that was the point of the paper yes, I add some info. in the answer, what do you think? I considered many alternatives. But I preferred to read the guesses of more experienced people. – user57717 Jul 8 '16 at 14:19
  • If the paper does not the meet the standards of the journal, it seems a very bad idea to reject it saying that it does not meet the scope of the journal. – jwg Jul 11 '16 at 12:23
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One possibility is that there is a language barrier causing your work to be misunderstood, or even possibly offensive to a certain person's sensibilities. I do note that your original post here had many English errors, which made it hard to read in places, up to and including the "Violence" claim in the title (which is, strictly speaking, a totally false claim, for example).

It sounds like someone else was handling your prior papers; maybe they heavily edited the language? And I'm guessing that your peers share a common first language with you; perhaps the reviewer does not? One recommendation would be to make sure that you have a native English speaker review your future papers before sending them out.

  • There could be multiple language barriers. It could be that the reviewer is also a non-native speaker and didn't realise that their tone was quite so harsh. – David Richerby Jul 9 '16 at 18:38
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Answering the question in the title

A lot of papers submitted for publication are garbage. They do not advance science, not have they been written with this goal. Often they are incoherent, illiterate, confused, or 'cargo cult' imitations of actual scientific research. Many of these garbage papers are submitted to prestigious journals where they waste the time of prominent and experienced referees. These people consider their time to be valuable. Therefore they might get angry if asked to review such a paper, particularly if the paper is not the first one they have encountered. This might well be the main reason a referee gets angry when writing a report.

Should such a person get angry? Well, they are entitled to their own feelings, but they should probably not express their anger in an unprofessional way, in the text of the report. Some people argue that rudeness has a positive benefit, because it discourage the submission of garbage papers. However, I think most people would disagree with this. Certainly the free software community has reached a near-consensus that it is counter-productive to be rude to people in the related area of patch submission and code review. Linus Torvalds, who was previously one of the best-known proponents of 'flaming' people who submit bad code, has spoken out strongly in favour of codes of conduct which forbid this type of rudeness.

Your review

However, I am not sure that the examples you quote could accurately be described as 'angry', unprofessional or rude.

It seems to the present referee that the author does not realize what constitutes the fundamental problem of molecular quantum mechanics as related to calculation chemistry.

Papers do get submitted by people who do not understand the fundamental problem of their field. If a reviewer believes that the author does not understand the fundamental problem of their field, what should they write in the report? It is obviously very important for them to communicate this belief to the editor. I think they should write something very much like the above. Note that the reviewer makes it clear that this is how things seem to that reviewer, and does not present it as fact. Thus they leave open two possibilities - that the author does understand, but has not successfully communicated, or that the author has successfully communicated, but the reviewer has not understood through some fault of their own. To me, this sentence does not seem angry or unprofessional. However, it does make it clear that the reviewer considers this work to have little merit.

Your paper

I don't know anything about your work. However you should see this report as at least a strong piece of evidence that your work is of very poor quality. It might be a convincing piece of evidence or not - certainly you might want to consider the possibility that this referee is better qualified than your colleagues to decide this. If you or your work do not meet the basic standards of academic research, then perhaps you work in a department with colleagues who also do not meet these basic standards, who are impressed by your rigor, but whose opinion is not trustworthy. On the other hand, if you know that your work is serious, important and new, then you should disregard the review. It could be that for whatever reason, the referee does not himself understand the fundamental problem of the field, or that he holds an very unorthodox opinion as to what it is. (In this case he was a bad choice of reviewer.)

Note that one of the main reasons it is considered to be a bad idea to be rude and angry to people who submit work of little apparent merit, is because of the chance that there might be a mistake. It's of course extremely hurtful, upsetting and demoralizing to have someone misunderstand your work and reject it without appreciating the reason it is genuinely worthwhile. For someone to also feel on top of this that they have been insulted is really a terrible outcome.

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    "If your work is garbage and you are a clown..." This seems a bit much. Could you perhaps rephrase with more tactful language? – Pete L. Clark Jul 11 '16 at 14:26
  • @PeteL.Clark yes. – jwg Jul 12 '16 at 9:58
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It does happen, but it is unprofessional on the part of the reviewer and in my opinion, also unprofessional of the editor for letting this through in this form. The first line in your quote is a harsh criticism, but for all I know, might be fair. But when the reviewer accuses you of using numerology, that is deliberately offensive (assuming that it is not literally true)!

It does happen and it is unfortunately not as rare as it should be, but it is not the norm. There's not much you can do about it now that the paper has been rejected. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and submit it somewhere else. Consider also leaving a review of the journal on https://scirev.sc/

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    when the reviewer accuses you of using numerology, that is deliberately offensive – One should at least consider the possibility that the reviewer confused numerology with numerics, not that this would make this review much better. – Wrzlprmft Jul 8 '16 at 4:54
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    Maybe this isn't the case in chemistry, but in math we referee to things as "numerology" all the time without any negative connotation. I've probably referred to aspects of my own work as numerology. It suggests that something is "just how the numbers work out", and I don't have a deep underlying reason for it. But again, possibly field-specific, and in context here it does sound more negative. – Mark Jul 8 '16 at 14:18
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One line of your question was a "tip-off: "This reviewer did not address any specific point of the work..."

What bothered the reviewer wasn't what is in the paper, but what isn't.

"It seems to the present referee that the author does not realize what constitutes the fundamental problem of..."

"The simple fact that the author examines... reflects his attitude and respect towards the concept of THEORY."

(I deliberately stripped out the technical language to get to the core of the complaint.)

It seems that the reviewer has very strong ideas about what should go into such a paper. And you didn't have them.

Maybe he has a point. Or maybe he has an axe to grind.In either event, it seems like you and he are on different "planets."

I would ask more senior people in your field (particularly those who can identify the reviewer by his distinctive style) which it is. The answer to the question of whether his concerns are germane or bogus will tell you whether or not this is normal.

  • particularly those who know the reviewer-- Surely the reviewer's identity is not known? – Shane O Rourke Jul 11 '16 at 8:32
  • @ShaneORourke: "Officially," yes, But the reviewer's style is so distinctive, (places a great emphasis on theory, has a disrespect for "statistics and numerology," gets way off topic), probably makes him (or her) fairly easy to identify. At any rate, the experts will know whether the reviewer's concerns are germane or bogus. – Tom Au Jul 11 '16 at 8:48
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Unfortunately it is quite common that authors receive negative feedback on their work, however this is often based around a misunderstanding or just a difference in opinions. What one might consider the right theoretical/scientific approach, might be perceived as the worst by others. I and probably others reading/commenting this topic have a hard time answering your questions the right way hence we haven't read your article nor the angry review. We can only guess and reply based on "feelings" etc.

Reading the newspaper online OFTEN shows angry reviews / comments by people that simply doesn't share the point of view that of the author. In my opinion this is what develops our written skills etc and this is what papers are about, bringing different topics for discussion?

If you want a more direct answer, please submit your article and the negative review. That would help a lot!

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