Why being a jerk reviewer is the worse thing to do to an editor

· by Brian Anderson · Read in about 4 min · (713 words) ·

I’m working through a R&R right now, and I’m dealing with a “jerk reviewer.”1 A jerk reviewer is someone who is decidedly unprofessional, condescending, or flat-out rude in his or her review. This isn’t the first time I’ve had one of these, and admittedly, my patience for dealing with these reviewers is waning. Fast.

Now as an editor, I have even less patience for jerk reviewers. They are the worst type of reviews to get back when making a decision on a paper, for three reasons:

It’s embarrasing

The reviewer gets to be anonymous. I don’t. The decision letter to the author carries my name on it, and by extension, the letter reflects my scholarly reputation and the reputation of the journal. If I send along the jerk review and do not address its poor tone, then I am implicitly condoning the jerk’s behavior, which makes me look like a jerk. If I do address the jerk review in the letter, I’m taking responsibility for the jerk, and I still look bad, because I’m the one who chose the jerk in the first place. No matter what, my reputation takes a hit and the jerk gets to be anonymous. Not cool.

It’s rarely insightful

The interesting thing about jerk reviews is that rarely are they actually helpful in providing specific guidance to the author. More often then not, after striping away the vitriol and condescension, the comments are generalities or matters of opinion. Typically, the bottom line is that the reviewer just didn’t like the paper. For example, jerk reviews often say something like “the author failed to cite studies X, Y, and Z” but then offer no justification for why omitting the literature is meaningful to the paper. Another example would be that “the author did not use method W,” again with little justification. What’s worse is when the jerk review snidely recommends some approach but is actually technically wrong (for example, my recent jerk reviewer argued that GMM is superior to 2SLS “since it does not require to [sic] bootstrapping standard errors”. What?!?!).

It creates more work for me

When you put the first two points together, now I’m irritated, because the jerk review created extra work for me as an editor. If the jerk review is really over the top, I have to go out and get another reviewer, which takes time, attention, and removes the new reviewer from the current reviewer pool because he or she has to back-fill the jerk. If the jerk review is borderline acceptable enough to send on to the author, I need to take the time to discern—if discernible—what the jerk was trying to say, along with providing the author guidance for other areas I want he or she to focus on. I also need to write an explanation to put the jerk review in context. I’ve got to do my work and the work of the jerk. Not cool.

Now, to be clear, I am all for challenging reviews. I think reviewers need to push authors to improve their argumentation, and to ensure that the research design and methodological choices are appropriate for the study and conducted accurately. Reviewers also need to point out when an author has made a mistake or a critical omission. However, there is no reason that this—tough—feedback cannot be delivered constructively and developmentally. Reviewers have no obligation to like a paper, but by agreeing to review the paper, he or she is making a commitment to be professional. I would also argue that the tough review is far more likely to be used by the author than the jerk review. I know in my own case as an author, jerk reviews generally just end up in the deleted items box, or I simply do not take the recommendations seriously. If the purpose of the jerk review was to make the paper better, it likely had the opposite effect.

The bottom line? Nobody wins with a jerk review, especially the jerk who wrote it. Do the editor a favor and don’t be the jerk.

  1. Special thanks to my friend Varkey (Anand) Titus—the very opposite of a jerk reviewer—for the email that sparked this post.