Mistakes in manuscript reviewing 101: how to cloak your identity

A recent example got me thinking more about how anonymous reviewers could do a far better job of being well, “anonymous”. One such reviewer happened to request the mention of some specific type of molecular descriptor property. The lead author on the manuscript with very minimal effort was able to identify the lab that most likely reviewed the manuscript. It also appeared they likely had a conflict of interest and probably should not have reviewed in the first place (possibly a topic for another post). I have also heard of colleagues who are fond of Googling phrases from reviews that other scientists likely use frequently in their own papers, and using that as a way to identify reviewers.

So the bottom line is, if we have to continue to have anonymous reviewers , they might want to disguise their efforts in some way, otherwise they should just openly review.  Here are some quick tips to do a better job of cloaking your identity:

  1. Do not continue to insist the authors add references to your papers – a sure give away, at least add as many references from other groups. If you really want to send the authors off the scent, just refer to papers from many different labs.
  2. If you have a habit of using an unusual word or phrase every time you write a paper, do not use it in your review. Better still, if you have picked out phrases other authors seem to use frequently, throw them into your review.
  3. Do not make reference to a technology only you have published on. Perhaps it would be better if appropriate to reference technologies from several different labs if these are missing.
  4. If the authors credit you or reference your work do not go easy on them and thank them. To disguise your review perhaps request removal of your reference/s and replace with a different labs.
  5. If you have met the authors in the past you may not want to pepper your review with comments you have already relayed in person, clearly the author was not listening to you the first time. However if you overheard someone else ask questions of the author at a meeting, perhaps you could reuse those.

I take no responsibility for the efficacy of the above 5 approaches.

While I am on the case of reviewers here is an extra bonus. Over the years of publishing one sees just about every “reviewer type” there is. Here are 12 examples (I could come up with more over beers I am sure), apologies if you recognize yourself in this list, there is a bit of truth hidden behind the cheekiness:

  1. “Fast and Furious rejection” – clearly this person is far too self important to bother with your manuscript, short review, barely any feedback other than Reject!
  2. “Long Winded” – multiple pages of comments to get their opinion across on all kinds of relatively minor issues. Clearly you will spend days responding to this reviewer, and they will love your attention, stroke their ego please.
  3. “Needs citations”- reviewer clearly lives on PubMed or is a librarian,  suggests multiple papers to add.
  4. “Because the authors have never published in field they have zero to contribute” – you have to be a member of the old boys club or you do not get to publish in “their journal”. This person is the gatekeeper, you stand no chance.
  5. “Their idea is so simple it cannot be meaningful” – reviewer clearly not open to any new ideas that bring their field out of the rut its been in since 1970. Your chances of rebutting are hopeless, give up.
  6. “Luddite” – technology hater, just wants chemists to deal with molecules and not new-fangled computers, let alone anything mobile. What was the Editor thinking suggesting this person?
  7. “Major changes, minor comments” -reviewer proposes a Major change is needed but provides one line critique. A close relative of #1 but kinder.
  8. “Reviewer AWOL” – Makes you wonder when you get reviews from Reviewer #1 and Reviewer #3 what ever happened to Reviewer #2? Did they just forget to respond or was review so bad?
  9. “Professional editorial triage” – this seems to happen mostly with Nature or Science type journals, some minion rejects your work because well you are not part of their club. Occasionally it goes out to an editorial member for one peer “review” before rejection to justify their fair and balanced process. Review is usually one sentence if lucky – get used to it.
  10. “The protector” -this reviewer really has a major issue with exposing your ideas to the “unprepared medicinal chemist/ scientist” because heck they would have to think.
  11. “Anti-commercial / all companies are bad” – this reviewer is strongly opposed to reviewing anything from a company and frequently uses phrases like ” X is a scientific journal and not a platform to announce software tools”. If that truly is the case then how come the journal publishes software tools from academics that have close connections to the companies that license their tools from their university. Something seriously conflicted here.
  12. “This is not science” – because only the reviewer “knows” what true science is. You do not stand a chance with this reviewer, always wakes up on the wrong side of the bed.

I could go on, but perhaps there is something more important to take away here from my mixed bag based on experiences over the years. Increasingly we are all asked to review articles for journals. Speaking as an editorial board member, if you do not have the time or the interest, just decline. It saves everyone time. Please provide feedback to reviewers and not some personal stance. If you have a conflict of interest with an author just decline the review request. If you are some sort of psycho stalker-reviewer of the author then you need help. Get a life.


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  1. Alex Clark says:

    Don’t forget to invert your Americanizations (sic)

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