“Don’t cite that paper!” When reviewers hide behind anonymity

A well hidden nasty reviewer

All academics are well aware of the blessing and the curse of receiving comments from reviewers after weeks (or months?) of wait. Finally, you can take a break from persistently pressing that refresh button and start working on something more constructive like improving your paper, right? Uhm, well, maybe not right away. First, you should probably curse in three languages because of Reviewer 1’s misunderstanding of your research protocol, then allow yourself to cry I bit for the endless additional analyses requested by Reviewer 4, and just before starting to be more productive, grab that package of chocolate chip cookies and eat it all at once.

Don’t get me wrong. I often find the process of revising my papers and replying to comments quite satisfying. In many cases, just knowing that I am able to address all the raised concerns makes me feel happier and more confident. And yes, reviewers can actually be really good.

Some comments are at least good for a laugh. Shit My Reviewers Say is one of my favorite Tumblrs ever, and often helps relieving the pain of a harsh rejection. This was one of my recent contributions, because I just could not stop laughing at the bitterness of my skeptic reviewer:

http://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com/post/135249479177/the-data-as-presented-is-not-very-convincing-even

 

On the same note, there is a well-known Facebook page, “Reviewer 2 must be stopped”, which often provides interesting gems.

We have all encountered the frustrated reviewer who wants you to cite all his previous work – this is such a cliché that this type has now found elaborate and convoluted techniques to actually force you to cite their work, without actually asking for it explicitly. Your work is about X, but why don’t you add a small paragraph about Y?

What I had never seen before, until a few weeks ago, was the furious reviewer who is irritated by one of your references. This is a surprising comment I recently received for a manuscript on pain-related gamma-band oscillations recorded from the human insula:

 

“The recent review they quote merely combines this knowledge presenting it (wrongly) as a new concept, which it is not, and the fact the authors have been misled by this clearly reveals a lack of knowledge of this earlier literature and perhaps a naïve representation of the current state of knowledge. It unfortunately undermines their results, which are otherwise reasonably interesting”.

 

Wait… so, the simple fact that I cite a paper that the reviewer doesn’t like undermines my results? How can this be?

First, a little bit of context. The article the reviewer refers to is “The Dynamic Pain Connectome” by Aaron Kucyi and Karen Davis, published in Trends in Neuroscience in 2015. The paper has been greeted as a cornerstone by many researchers in the pain field, and despite its recent publication, has already been cited at least 25 times according to Google Scholar (I am quite confident that this number will be growing exponentially in the next months). The senior author is one of the most renowned and influential researchers in the pain field (the kind that gets invited to do TED lessons), section editor of the journal “Pain”, with an impressive long list of highly cited publications in the field of pain neurophysiology. I would say, not the type of researcher one would associate with the word “naïve”.

Of course, the reviewer does not have to agree with the cited paper, nor with my study conclusions that refer (also) to this paper. I am open to disagreement, discussion, and confrontation. What I find astonishing is the reviewer’s pretension that I do not cite the paper at all – even though this paper undoubtedly sets a landmark in the field of pain neuroscience. Instead of asking me to better clarify and discuss my position on the cited paper (and how it relates to my study), the reviewer states that my “reasonably interesting results” are not valid anymore. Seriously?

Now, I have been to a number of conference and meetings, and I am quite sure I have met most of my reviewers face to face. Nobody has ever defined me “naïve” in person. I have also never heard such a harsh criticism of the paper by Kucyi & Davis. During presentations and talks, nobody ever raised their hand to frankly say “you should not refer to that paper, it is simply WRONG”. No, not even in the belligerent pain neuroscience field.

My impression is that this kind of messages can only be delivered if well hidden by anonymity. Blind peer-review is sadly an option for pouring out repressed aggressiveness (and maybe to take revenge on some competing research team).

Dear Reviewers, if it’s not possible to sign your reviews, just ask yourselves: “Would I be saying this in public?”

If not, please go for the delete button and write something you would not be ashamed of.

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I am a neuroscientist working on pain and nociception in the NOCIONS Lab, within the Institute of Neuroscience (IoNS) (Brussels), based at the Université catholique de Louvain.

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