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Are We Enabling Abusive Reviewers?

Some of the issues raised by Victoria Samanidou’s recent piece (1), while worrying, are frankly child’s play compared to what I have seen. It can be so much worse.

Abusive reviewers may become aware (by early citation, arXiv, word of mouth) that a “target” paper or researcher is under review, and then write to the journal's editor demanding to be made a reviewer. Associate editors may accede to this demand, fearing escalation to the Editor in Chief, and the potential loss of their status as associate editor (and consequent loss of academic status).

When decision letters for contributed papers are sent, it’s common practice to send all reviews to all the reviewers, which seems a very reasonable thing to do, but sadly it can open the door to abuse in unexpected and unprincipled ways.  

Scathing anonymous reviews will damage the paper’s authors in the eyes of the other unnamed Reviewers. In a blind review process, abusive reviews amount to character assassination – what is said cannot be unsaid. And when a paper is accepted pending revision, reviewers in the first round are often asked to review the revision. If this happens, in the second round, a reviewer may stridently attack another reviewer's first review and, in the process, damn the work of third parties by name. This approach can damage reputations, and it can intimidate reviewers and third parties who are publishing in the same field. 

I’ve also seen reviewers attacking papers of students of professors with whom the reviewer has disagreements, even if these students are publishing independently.  I have witnessed abusive reviewers who demand that specific references be removed from the bibliography.  This is far more pernicious than requiring papers to be added.

Abusive reviewers are also authors, and such authors have been known to add a few sentences to the typesetter’s proof of accepted papers. It takes a vigilant editor to notice this addition so late in the game.  As a result, unreviewed technical content can be added to the published literature. When such abuse is suspected, the blind review process makes it hard to prove without the help of the associate or guest editor, who may be loath to follow up because it reflects on their failure to perform “due diligence”.  Which journals have procedures for reporting and investigating such behavior, and what is the penalty to authors when their egregious acts are discovered?  

You can’t make this stuff up.  

These kinds of problems were once quite rare and were handled by thoughtful Editors who could rely on the professionalism of all concerned parties. Editors played a vital and active role in mediating disputes, as researchers are, by and large, a difficult group.  Editors often now have many associate editors (AEs) to help them deal with the large and growing number of submitted papers, as well as the increasing specialization. The number of AEs can be as large as 50 or more. And it is naïve to believe that they all understand their job. When I suggested to one Editor in Chief that AEs need some kind of training, the idea gained no traction because “all AEs are experienced professionals.” They are professional researchers, yes, but newly appointed AEs are not necessarily professional associate editors! 

The trends I see are troubling and cut across all scientific professional journals, although some fields are without doubt more affected than others. 

I don’t want readers to be distracted by my details, and that is why I wish to remain, Yours truly, Anonymous.

Do you have any thoughts on how we can improve the peer review process? Let us know here!

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  1. V Samanidou, “Cite Your Sources: Academic Integrity Revisited,” The Analytical Scientist (2022). Available at:
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