Why You Gotta Be So Mean?

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

July 22, 2013

This summer I took my 11-year-old daughter and her friend to a Taylor Swift concert. There were screaming teens, a boy-band warm-up group, and production values that felt like I had stepped into a music video. It was exactly what I had expected, with one exception.

During a pause in the music, Swift told us how when she was younger, she had received her share of bullying at school. She'd always thought that kind of stuff stopped when you grew up; turns out it doesn't. But we can change that, she said. How? By being kind, she told us, before launching into her hit song, "Why You Gotta Be So Mean?"

The next morning, I received an e-mail from a journal editor informing me that my recent submission was a "revise and resubmit." I clicked on the link to the first review and began to read. With each sentence, I felt myself shrinking in stature. My prose was "passable." I bordered on being "uninformed." The reviewer, in response to the question of "significance of content," checked "low" (the worst one). I had also failed to meet "minimum standards of competency in history and philosophy," which is not good if you are writing for an interdisciplinary journal in the social sciences.

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None of the reviewer's comments were helpful in guiding me on how to make the article better. And there was a snarky undercurrent in the review's tone that just made me feel bad. The second review of my submission was much more positive—both constructive and encouraging. But I still felt bad.

As I sat at my computer, feeling low, I thought back to the concert and Taylor Swift's song. Ever since I started my academic career, I've been telling myself that the review process would get better once I "grew up" and became a faculty member. It hasn't. And I am not alone. In my department, we often swap stories about unbelievably nasty comments from reviewers. It is fun in the sense that everyone can chime in, but disheartening when we realize how pervasive this "mean" business really is.

Why are some reviewers so mean? And perhaps more important, what can and should be done about it? Swift offers a theory on the motives of mean people: "I bet you got pushed around. Somebody made you cold."

In other words, reviews are payback time. What goes around comes around, and it feels good to be the one on top. Perhaps that is part of the explanation. But I have a couple more theories.

My first theory: Reviewing is an anonymous act. Deindividuation theory holds that anonymity unlocks the worst in all of us. (You might have heard about the famous Milgram and Zimbardo experiments. Scary stuff.) In current parlance, when we get a chance to be anonymous, the troll comes out.

My second theory has to do with journal editors. Simply put, some editors are too timid. They desperately need reviewers and do not want to risk shrinking the pool of available free labor. No reviewers means no reviews, which in turn means no articles. Or maybe the editors don't get paid enough (if at all) to deal with conflict so they don't say a word when they see that a reviewer has been unnecessarily cruel and mean-spirited. They just pass the review on, at best using a kind-hearted letter to point to the reviewer's substantive points while ignoring the cheap shots.

Those of you who have done some reviewing might be thinking: What about the authors? Maybe they shouldn't send in garbage!

In sociology, we call that blaming the victim. Don't do it. Editors have a responsibility to keep incomprehensible, ridiculous submissions away from reviewers. It's called a bench rejection. Those pieces that make it to a reviewer's inbox presumably have some redeeming qualities, even if they, ultimately, aren't enough to warrant publication. A submission that makes it past editors may still have poor grammar, gaps in the literature review (gasp!), wrongheaded arguments, faulty methods, the list goes on. But none of those things are license for you as a reviewer to be a jerk.

I know all too well the feeling of frustration when you realize the paper you are reviewing is an absolute train wreck. But I also know the feelings of jubilation and renewed purpose that come from being the recipient of constructive comments.

Some academics see reviewing as a privilege and an honor to be respected. They view it as an opportunity to teach. My first sole-authored journal submission was rejected. But one of the reviewers gave me 10 single-spaced pages of comments, with a very positive message: I had done some good work, it just needed more work. That review gave me the courage to continue to send out my writing, and the substance of the review had a major influence on the ideas in my dissertation project.

The act of reviewing holds out the potential to nurture and teach. Being gracious doesn't mean being a pushover. We can still be firm, and maintain standards. But as my mother always says, "Kill 'em with kindness."

If we imagine that each paper we review is a first-time submission by a scared, intimidated student, that might help curb the mean stuff. Or not. We might also simply try to be the better person, so to speak. As Swift sings, "But the cycle ends right now. 'Cause you can't lead me down that road."

I am a bit more cynical than she is. I don't think being more mindful will work. In fact, I am sure that many of the real meanies don't even realize that they are acting that way. If you don't know your shortcomings, how can you change? What is needed is a more aggressive effort to reform the review process. I have a few ideas:

  • Let's make the process transparent. Once the final decision has been made on a manuscript, why not reveal the names of reviewers, at least for those who have tenure? Being forced to look one's potential object of scorn in the eye at a future conference might eliminate the worst and most uncalled-for comments.
  • Edit out the mean stuff. Editors: Is it really that scary to ask someone to alter their tone? Why not do some editing of reviews?
  • Advisers and tenured faculty members: Speak up. Instead of patting the back of the graduate student who just got a scathing review (and might be crying in your office), why not write to the journal editor and point out that a little more sensitivity in delivering a negative review never hurt anyone? And if you have tenure and one of your manuscripts got a really nasty review, write to the editor and politely point out your concerns.
  • Shame the editorial boards. Imagine a Wiki with a section for each journal. One could anonymously post mean quotes from reviews. That way, over time we might begin to see if there is a concentration of the mean stuff at particular journals. I can't imagine any member of an editorial board would feel good about her journal being on the Top 10 Most Mean list.
  • Model good behavior. When you write your next review, go out of your way to be gracious and nurturing. Try to build people up rather than knocking them down. It might make you feel good, and it will show the recipient that good-quality reviews need not skimp on being nice.
  • Teach the next generation. As faculty members, we have a chance to show our students how to do it right. We can show them that being snarky is not the same as being smart. We can explain to them what really matters in a paper, and how to avoid sweating the small stuff. We can teach them why forcing our own project agendas on the manuscripts we review is unacceptable.

The next time you are asked to write a review, check with the editor to see if you can have one of your graduate students write it along with you. I've done that with students, and it has been a great learning experience on both sides.

Those are just a few preliminary thoughts, and I am sure that readers will have better ones. My point here is not to encourage mediocre work with falsely positive reviews but to put an end to reviews that are nasty without reason, critical without being constructive, discouraging where they should be encouraging.

Erik Schneiderhan is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.