Dear Editor … Feedback on Articles/Scientific Papers

Dear Editor,
why do you keep sending my stories back? You’re supposed to print them, and make me rich and famous.
What is it with you?
“Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life” by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz (Eds.)

Call me an idealist (or masochist), but I really believe that good feedback is a good thing. Without feedback work cannot improve, people cannot improve, life cannot improve. But the problem with feedback is that it has to be good (= improve the current and/or future work).

In my brief experience with academic publishing I have received two kinds of feedback that were … not so good.

#1 “D. Perry said it all!”

The worst review I ever got was by a reviewer-editor team. Reviewer 1 liked the paper, had some comments that could be addressed, but all in all, it was okay for him or her. Reviewer 2, however, did not like it. He or she mentioned some minor issues and then sunk it with the (for me) immortal words:

D. Perry’s thorough work more than two decades ago about [the topic under discussion] really said it all, and most other work is merely a variation on this.

Besides huge differences between my approach and D. Perry’s approach in methodology, setting, scope and a few other things, how can anyone working in science write this? A topic in social sciences ticked off for all eternity, because someone “really said it all”? Hello? I don’t understand it — unless the reviewer was either D. Perry or someone in a close (working or private) relationship to that person. I associate an hostility to new information with commercial enterprises who must protect their own methods if they cannot or will not invent anything new, but in science?

I also did not understand the editor who followed reviewer 2 without question. No matter that reviewer 1 did write the more useful review (in terms of issues to address), according to the editor, reviewer 2 was a ‘world expert in the field’ and his word was decisive. If I were reviewer 1, I would question why I was asked for a review in the first place, if my word does not count and pales in comparison to — what a colleague of mine called — ‘an asshole comment’ [“das ist ein arschlochkommentar.” for those who speak German].

Call me old fashioned, but I seriously expected reasons why something is not good, and perhaps someone who knows the difference between different methods and what can be concluded from them.

#2 “There is one more thing …”

Steve Jobs could pull this off — ‘end’ a presentation and then saying “There is one more thing …” and go on … and on … and on. But this wasn’t only because he is Steve Jobs, or because the audience was really interested, but because the things he announced were positive. Can you imagine pulling this off at a shareholder meeting with negative news? “We just lost $50 Million due to bad management … but there is one more thing … our supertanker sank south of Africa and it was not insured … but wait, there’s one more thing … we have problems with the IRS …” — wouldn’t work so well.

In the same vein are comments by the editor after resubmission that address issues that were already present in the first submission (and are still in the resubmission), but weren’t mentioned by the reviewers or the editor. I mean, you spend days reworking the paper, create an 8+ pages document addressing the reviewer comments one by one, and when you think you are finished … oh, sorry, back at square one: reject and resubmit, because you did not address the things I am telling you now.

What makes this procedure really damaging is not only that the new reviewers will find other idiosyncratic issues that you have to address, so it’s going to be two rounds again (if you are ‘lucky’), it is that the trust is broken. I can only address those issues that I see or reviewers (and the editor) point out to me. If new issues come up after resubmitting it, then I feel cheated. I did a lot of work for the paper with the implicit assumption that the criteria were known: I address the reviewer comments and — if I did this successfully in the eyes of the editor — it gets published. It is okay when the editor thinks that I did not address the comments, this is valuable feedback and — to a large degree — my fault. But finding new issues after the old ones are addressed, it’s like … like moving the target after you shoot, but before your arrow hits the target. I honestly don’t know how you could win such a game.

In the End …

… these are some of the … not so nice … conditions in academic publishing, at least in the social sciences. I know why I did write my book on Organizing Creativity without editors and reviewers. It has its flaws, but it was a much needed … compensation for the work in science. I think you need a lot of determination and idealism to keep going in academia, to deal with incomprehensible decisions against which you are powerless. You work for years and then you play a game of ping-pong that is hard to beat. And yes, like the quote at the beginning of this post, sometimes you feel like Snoopy.

I am not saying that editors and reviewers are evil, cruel or stupid, far from it. Some reviewers gave really, really useful and good feedback and the paper really profited by the initial rejection or major revision decision. But these people (and I include myself, as I also do reviews) are only human and sometimes they have a lot of their mind and make decisions that are questionable at best.

Science should not work this way, but unfortunately, sometimes, it does.

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