There’s a running joke in academia about Reviewer 2. That’s the reviewer that doesn’t bother to read the manuscript a journal has sent out for evaluation for possible publication, offers condescending or outright offensive comments, and—of course—urges the irrelevant citation of their own work. Such unprofessional conduct is so pervasive there’s even a whole Facebook group, more than 25,000 members strong, named “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped!” But it is no laughing matter, concludes a new study that finds boorish reviewer comments can have serious negative impacts, especially on authors belonging to marginalized groups.
Peer reviewers are supposed to ensure that journals publish high-quality science by evaluating manuscripts and offering suggestions for improvement. But often, referee comments stray far from that mission, found the new PeerJ study, which surveyed 1106 scientists from 46 countries and 14 disciplines. More than half of the respondents—who were promised anonymity—reported receiving at least one “unprofessional” review, and a majority of those said they had received multiple problematic comments.
Those comments tended to personally target a scientist, lack constructive criticism, or were just unnecessarily harsh or cruel, the authors report. For example, one author received a review that stated: “The phrases I have so far avoided using in this review are ‘lipstick on a pig’ and ‘bullshit baffles brains.’” Another reported receiving this missive: “The author’s last name sounds Spanish. I didn’t read the manuscript because I’m sure it’s full of bad English.”
What wasn’t equal was the toll these reviews took on the respondents. White men reported being “the least impacted by the unprofessional peer reviews,” says co–lead author Nyssa Silbiger, an ecologist at California State University in Northridge. But women, nonbinary individuals, and people of color all were more likely to report that unprofessional reviews increased feelings of self-doubt and harmed their scientific productivity. People of color were also more likely to say the reviews delayed their career advancement.
Those reports are not surprising, psychologist Denise Sekaquaptewa of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor wrote to ScienceInsider in an email. They line up with a lot of findings in the psychological literature on stereotype threat—the psychological harm caused by pervasive negative stereotypes. Essentially, because there are stereotypes that women or people of color are less intelligent or scientifically minded, receiving a review that reinforces such stereotypes—no matter how inaccurate—can create psychological distress. That distress, in turn, can result in self-doubt, impaired performance, and delayed career advancement.
Read the full article at Science.