Referees With Attitude Problems

Everyone involved in the academic journal publishing process, it seems, is overworked. It’s true of the editors, of course, but also of the referees who say yes. And when people are overworked, they often become especially concerned with how their time is used up, by themselves and others, and frustrated when they feel their time is wasted.

slingshot pencil pic

When you have to referee a paper that you think is especially bad, there’s often that sense that your  time is being wasted. The thought is that the author should have known better, or the editor should have known better—that someone, anyone should have known better and stopped this paper at some point before it became your responsibility to deal with. And so you get frustrated. And sometimes, you take this frustration out in your referee report. This is one reason referees sometimes act like jerks. (There is, of course, the phenomenon of refereeing “like a jerk except you are an actual jerk.”)

Sometimes the jerks are self-aware, and wrap up their jerkiness in the guise of helpful (but condescending) assistance, or disquisitions on the nature of philosophy or the philosophy profession. The result is referee reports like the following, which a reader sent in:

In order to get their work published, scholars feel they have to convince us that they have something new to say. This feeling is justified, but it puts pressures on the authors of articles that sometimes make what they write counterproductive to their own end. They are so insistent on the originality of what they write that it only makes a reader notice how little new there really is in it. The more insistent the author is about this, and the more relentlessly the paper attacks the existing interpretations, the more a reader becomes aware of how little there is in the paper that is new. We see only the author’s exaggeration of the importance of new turns of phrase and new ways of saying the same old things. This can be done even in papers that are impressively detailed in their analysis, their footnotes, their formalizations. The paper shows impressive erudition and scholarship, and philosophical skill. But the author knows this won’t be enough unless the reader is convinced that everything written previously on the topic has been hopelessly wrong, and that the world was just waiting (though it was not aware of the fact) for this author to come along and get everything right at last…

[some criticisms]…

The next phase of the paper makes a number of points about [redacted]. These are not new, and they are not presented with any special perspicuity that I could detect. If Author is saying anything original in these pages, I missed it. At this point I begin to be bored with the paper. But I also imagine Author, when reading these comments, as reacting with fury at my being so obtuse as not to appreciate the wonderful originality of his presentation of these matters. This makes me glad I am not in the same room with Author, and there is no china handy that he can throw at me.

This is hardly the worst example of the type—feel free to share your examples in the comments—but it illustrates the point well enough.

The point is not that the referee is mistaken. I haven’t read the paper, so I wouldn’t know. It’s just that we’d probably be better off without the bad attitude. If you don’t think the paper should have been sent to referees, instead of barely concealing that in your comments to the author, tell the editor. Save your view of the profession for a blog (I accept guest posts, you know). And save time; remember this advice:

The main job of the referee is not:
1)  To help write the paper as a quasi‐coauthor
2)  Make an unpublishable paper publishable by directing the research
3)  To ensure that the paper cites the referee’s work

To which we can add:

4) To be a jerk.

If you follow these guidelines, next time you get a frustratingly bad paper to referee you have at least one reason to be happy: it shouldn’t take long at all to move it from “to do” to “done.”

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