The 5 Species of Journal Reviewers

Brian Taylor

December 06, 2011

The journal-review process is always the subject of some scorn among scholars. I've been in the academic profession for nearly 30 years, and while I've heard few people unequivocally applaud blind reviews, it seems that in the last five years, more colleagues at all levels have expressed consternation with the process.

One friend, an editor at a top business-school journal, admitted to me (albeit after three beers and a rather nice-size margarita) that the review system was broken.

There are myriad reasons for the breakdown, all of which might spark curiosity and intellectual energy. But for me, after so many discussions with friends and colleagues, I have resigned myself to the mess. That resignation serves as a kind of inoculation against the hope of a reasonable review. I now see the review process more humorously, as an adventure in which some type of unfairness will emanate and afford me an opportunity to figure out how to adjust to it.

I now expect one of five reviewers to emerge in most articles I send out for review, and the truth is that I am rarely disappointed.

The expert in everything. So many comments from reviewers have nothing to do with their area of expertise. In a recent paper, for example, a reviewer provided punctuation directives: "The rule of thumb is that no more than one colon or semicolon can be used on every other page."

My reviewer was a management scholar, and why she would comment on (and require me to change) something that is the purview of a copy editor and not in her area of expertise, eludes me. I've looked around, spoken to experts, and not found the existence of such a rule. Maybe I am just not looking hard enough. But I had to change my punctuation to pacify a reviewer whose ego appeared to outdistance her expertise.

The insecure expert. Ego, it appears, rears its ugly head into other aspects of the review. In discussing reviewer horror stories with colleagues, one damaged ego story is recurrent: the expert who has to prove to you that you are ill-informed and he is going to educate you. Those reviews tend to start with: "The author has missed a significant number of critical articles in the paper," and proceed with sometimes more than a dozen citations you failed to consider.

Occasionally, there is something relevant in the list of citations. More often, upon inspection, the content of those missed citations tends to reveal two different things. First, most contain a sentence that relates in some way to an idea in your paper but only if you consider ideas from an adjoining universe. Admittedly, those of us receiving such instruction sometimes are guilty of not remembering that single sentence that marginally related to the least-relevant concepts in our paper. Second, buried in the long list of relevant citations are a few of the reviewer's own papers, which we failed to cite because we didn't know he was going to review our paper. But our failure provides a crushing blow to the self-esteem of an already fragile ego frustrated that his work has not yet gotten the accolades and awards it justly deserves.

Our response, however, is always the same. We dutifully serve our purpose as the human version of psychotropic medicine and include the citations in the paper so that the reviewer's self-esteem can remain intact. Readers of the published paper will no doubt be confused why we included the citations, since even we are unable to muster the explanation to the editor.

The expert who should have written your paper. At times, many of us have come to a painful realization upon reading a reviewer's comments: This reviewer thinks she should have written the paper herself. There is always a reviewer who is certain that she can reconceptualize your theory more comprehensively, reframe your hypotheses more succinctly, and suggest methods that are more current and better utilized.

And every once in a while, there's the reviewer who tells you she really likes the idea, loved reading it, and then goes on for paragraphs about how you need to do an entirely different study or reformulate the complete theory because the execution is "fraught with difficulties."

So many times I've said to myself, on reading such reviews, "God should have graced the idea to this smart chap who would have done a better job of it." Well, that's not really what I say, but I know that's what the reviewer would want to hear, so I self-deprecate my work in my revision, grovel to the reviewer's supposed intellectual superiority—and try to do it her way. Like the customer, I've learned that the reviewer is always right.

The expert who reveals his ignorance. Blind reviews may be a decent way to review, but they also lend themselves to reviewers inadvertently revealing their own incompetence. I know I'm not the only author to be told by a reviewer that an earlier study I conducted myself and then cited in my new manuscript was "portrayed incorrectly" or "reported data in a way the authors did not intend." Ah, yes, age is getting to many of us, and we may be forgetful about the major findings and theoretical development of our own work.

To add insult to injury, we must explain our article to the reviewer, something we already wrote once and he didn't understand—all the while keeping ourselves anonymous—without sounding like we're saying "Did you actually read my article?"

Each time that happens, you treat it like a spiritual experience. You try to tell yourself that repetition of what you already know is a way to learn patience, so the reviewer must be right to do this.

The nasty reviewer. Of all the types of reviewers, the most prized is the one who engages in character assassination, ad hominem attacks, and a full, unequivocal repudiation of everything from your title to your references.

This is the "super-reviewer," the one who appears to have had all empathy eradicated and critiques your paper with the surgical precision of a nuclear weapon. "The author's perspective is simple-minded, superfluous, and strategically inadequate," said one reviewer of a friend's paper, "and left me asking why I spent my time reviewing it."

Yet it is the nasty reviewer that many of us like the most because her vitriol is usually accompanied by an outright rejection, which means that we will not have to respond to the comments. We will not have to degrade ourselves by agreeing with her and "fixing" it. We will not need to mollify her lack of humanity with changes that will likely make the paper worse rather than better.

I suppose I am grateful I have managed to get more than 100 articles through the review process. I take comfort in knowing that, at least in reviewing articles for journals that only other academics will read, there is relatively little damage done to the larger universe of ideas. Most of the world's ideas will be spared the constraints of too few semicolons and the transmogrification of good ideas into muddy ones. I just try not to think about how those reviewers must be treating their students.

Robert A. Giacalone is a professor of human-resource management at Temple University and editor of the "Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion."