How to reject a scientific paper

I didn’t write this one, but I wish I did. I found it on Science after Sunclipse. I guess that a CC license can be safely applied to anonymous chain letters.

Today CBSG continues with its pointers for budding scientists with the second part on serving as a peer reviewer for papers and grants.

Okay, you’ve decided that you are going to reject a manuscript. The naive reviewer might think that it is enough to simply state the reasons for the rejection as clearly and succinctly as possible. But this overlooks a major issue: ensuring that the authors do not know that it is you who rejected the manuscript.

Because the peer review process is anonymous, this may seem like no concern, as long as you extirpate all references to your own work to keep your identity secret. Wrong! You have to keep in mind that no matter how crappy the paper is, the authors are going to be pissed that it is rejected, and they are going to immediately begin wracking their brains to identify referees who might have done the dirty on them. Most will form a list of at least 5 or 6 people that they think are likely to have screwed them. Since most papers are reviewed by no more than 2-3 reviewers, this means you have a good chance of being on the list even if you were NOT the reviewer. Thus, particular pains must be taken to direct the authors ire elsewhere. Several different means to accomplish this are described below:

1. Pretend that you are British. (Note — this does not work well if you actually are British).

Just a few decades ago, it was enough to include a liberal sprinkling of “rathers” and “doubtlesses” throughout the review, and convert all colors to colours, analyze to analyse, polymerize to polymerise, etc. However, the increasing intellectual and cultural cross-pollination brought by the internet has rendered such limited measures ineffective. Thus, you need to be au courant with all the most specific idioms available to the average Brit.

For example, you might want to refer to a poorly run gel as being “dodgy”, “gammy” or “a bit pear-shaped”. Especially effective are slang terms derived from cricket. This is because no self-respecting American knows anything about this sport (indeed, outside the British Commonwealth, cricket is universally reviled as the one sport even more boring than baseball). Here are some cricket-based phrases worked into sentences that you might include in a review. Instead of writing “Some of the data presented by the authors are mutually contradictory” write “The authors seem to have gotten themselves into a bit of a sticky wicket”.

Instead of writing “The documentation of morpholino efficacy by monitoring expression of exogenously provided target rather than the endogenous target is not quite fair” write “Using GFP-ponticulin as a read out for the morpholino effects is not quite cricket”. And, instead of writing “I was chagrined to see that the authors ignored the previous studies by the Jones lab”, write “the failure of the authors to cite the seminal studies of Jones and colleagues hit me for six”.

1B. Pretend that you are an American pretending to be British (Note: this does work if you are British, but does not work if you are American.) The strategy here is similar to #1 above, but instead of being a little bit subtle, you go straight over the top. Thus, instead of writing “I seriously doubt that anyone will believe …”: “Blimey! Blokes would have to be right daft if they were to believe …”

2. Pretend that you are Canadian. This is harder because the only major language difference between Americans and Canadians is that the latter tend to mispronounce words with the short O sound such that they rhyme with newt. Needless to say, this sort of thing is not manifest in written reviews.

However, the canny reviewer can draw on the one or two features of Canadian culture that are unique. Interestingly (in light of the cricket discussion above) most of these revolve around Canadian football. For example, you might allude to a paper not being ready for the Grey Cup yet (a reference to the Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl), describe an experimental situation as being “3rd and long” (an allusion to the fact that there are only three downs in Canadian football) or argue that the authors need to “bring in a couple more coaches” (referring to the fact that Canadian football teams have 4 head coaches). Cite obscure Canadian journals: “J Can. Med. Assoc.” or “Can. J. Cardio.” No one outside of Canada reads these journals.

3. Pretend that you are German. This is even harder, because even if you know some German, you have to write your review in English for most journals. Be extremely precise and technical. You could also try simply putting the verb at the end of your sentences (as in “The experiments in figures 5 and 6 should repeated be”), however this runs the risk of having yourself labeled not as a German, but as an imbecile or an incarnation of Yoda. Alternatively cite organic chemistry articles from the late 19th and early 20th century that have never been translated into English. Cite German aricles during the 30s and 40s when the rest of Academia was trying its best to ignore German science.

3B. Pretend that you are an American pretending to be German; sprinkle the text with flavorful comments such as “Ach mein lieber!” or “Du spinnst!” Or, if a line of reasoning is particularly awful, “Ist gibt ein Blutbat en der Hoelle!” Stick umlauts on random words, and make liberal use of the eszett. Downside: the editor will conclude you have flipped.

4. Pick one of the people from you own list of 5-6 enemies and pretend to be that person. Heavily cite their work. Reference their obscure conference presentations. Arrogantly suggest that person’s methods in favor of the methods used in the paper, especially where they are clearly inapplicable

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One Response to “How to reject a scientific paper”

  1. Jean says:

    Ha! Thanks for making my morning.