Monday, June 13, 2016

Tired of unprofessional reviews

As a scientist, I am no stranger to rejection. I use it to help improve my writing, my message, and the impact of my science. But I don't appreciate reviews that cannot find anything positive to say about my research. I recently received such a review from AoB plants. Needless to say, I decided not to let such an unprofessional review pass unnoticed. As we help move science forward, we also need to shed light on the downsides of science and the areas that still need improvement. I share my response letter with you to take a stand. Reviews that are poorly written and unkind are useless. It is unfortunate that people use the blanket of anonymity to get away with such things. I give you my response here. I do not do this in haste.

To the editor:

Thank you for the opportunity to have our manuscript “Differential Response of Barrier Island Dune Grasses to Species Interactions and Burial” reviewed at AoB Plants. Although the outcome was not favorable, I understand and accept the reasons provided by the Associate Editor to reject the manuscript without consideration of resubmission. However, I am writing to provide feedback on my extreme disappointment with the review provided by referee #2. I find the review to be unprofessional and written by someone still in the dark ages of science. I am able to glean useful information regarding the clarity of the manuscript; however, review #2 is written by someone that could find nothing positive about the paper, which I find difficult to accept given the completely contradictory review by referee #1.

I am familiar with reviews that at least summarize the overall objectives of the paper. It is not clear from the review that the referee understood the objectives of the paper as there is no mention of burial and species interaction. Also, the referee does not understand that our chosen variables were used to assess morphological and physiological responses of species with biotic interactions and burial (even though it is stated in the objectives). The referee states that our “goals seem way too ambitious for the experiments”; however, connecting our results to published work of these species building different dunes was not an objective of the study, but a broader context to help understand the significance of changes in growth due to these biotic interactions and to provide justification for examining these two species. Had the referee summarized our paper and the objectives, this may have become clear to him/her. Instead, the referee begins the review with “The manuscript seems poorly prepared” and gives vague statements such as “In fact, the traits in this experiment are not well justified for the questions addressed in this paper”, “Details are missing about background”, and “things are out of order”, without providing any further examples or clarification to help us understand what is lacking. I understand that more information and citations regarding replacement studies (which are commonly used in recent ecological literature) woulde useful to focus the reader on our objective. Also, I realize we should discuss species interactions instead of competition and discuss the relative inter vs. intra-specific interactions, but this is not an experimental design flaw, rather a point of clarification.

Overall, I am disappointed that a journal would accept a review that is written in such a scathing and unprofessional manner. This does nothing to help advance science or encourage young scientists to pursue the field. I hope in that writing this letter you will reconsider using this reviewer in the future and you will seek a third referee when receiving reviews of this nature.  I also write this letter in hope that the young scientist who is first author on this paper does not let poorly written reviews which are incapable of finding any scientific value in a paper that is “thoughtful, well-formulated hypotheses; appropriate variables, sufficient data, and adequate statistics to address those hypotheses; and it was well organized and clear (to a native English speaker) if not particularly well written” discourage her from pursuing science in the future. Reviews such as #2 are completely unnecessary for helping any scientist to improve and make better and more impactful contributions to science. I will be hesitant in the future regarding submissions to AoB Plants.

Thank you for your time,

Julie Zinnert

As an addendum, I did receive a very respectful response to my letter. I hope that in providing feedback I can encourage others to do so, and also to ultimately move towards a standard in etiquette for reviews. It is difficult to accept a review as objective that is terse and only highlights faults without being written in the context of the goals of the study. We all have bias and it comes out in peer review too easily.