I have recently written two papers (on my own without any help in the nuances of peer-review from a seasoned supervisor), well one was more of an educational article.
The larger paper (not the educational article), which was a review on different techniques/technologies used to study COVID, was submitted to a good journal with a good impact factor (but not outrageously high). It is a journal that I've published a paper (during Ph.D.) in before and also act as a reviewer for.
The paper came back from review with four reviewers.
The first reviewer was very positive about the paper and suggested a two things to add, which improved the manuscript. They questioned a single reference (out of nearly 100 - it was a long, but not excessive review) that was outdated, which was well posted and again which I rectified.
The second reviewer was extremely positive about the paper but started asking me to comment on random things not related to the paper for their own work.
The third reviewer just said the review was "merely a list. and not for publication on this journal", including the poor grammar!
The fourth reviewer was mostly positive but wanted something else covered, which at the time of submission there wasn't any quality work published on the area. I then found an excellent paper that was subsequently published (after I'd submitted for review) and so included it.
As I was making the amendments, and feeling appreciative of the suggestions, the editor rejected the paper!
I picked mainly reviewers from my reference list who are experts at world-renowned centres. I believe from the expertise shown in the feedback that these were reviewers 1, and 4 (and 2). Reviewer 2 I believe to be someone from an institution in which I last worked but I had not worked with personally (which I picked) thinking she is conscientious about her work, but in fact didn't help my review by asking non-relevant questions.
Reviewer 3 was just plain rude and didn't really offer much except negativity (and perhaps a desire to block my paper from being published).
After having made the amendments (from the helpful reviewers), I submitted the paper to a very high impact (but not Nature) journal, again where I had also published another paper during my Ph.D. It came back from the two reviewers:
The first reviewer was very positive about the review, its relevance and usefulness, but was of the opinion that it should be more of an instructive article like a tutorial. Their decision was to publish.
The second reviewer (who I later found was a Ph.D. student, with quite a few papers) was very negative saying that the information in the review was available from searching the internet! and that it should be a detailed guide on how to perform the techniques. Their decision was to reject outright.
My question is, alluded to in the title, what to do about that "other" negative reviewer!? The one who throws a spanner in the works with no real justification!? I concede it would be a different situation if they had actually found a glaring hole (I've seen it happen to a good researcher early on in their career) - in this case I'd just have to rectify the issue and carry on.
This paper has had reasonably good interest --- nearly 1,000 reads on Researchgate in the last few months since posting the pre-print.
The peer-review process in this case has really made things difficult. I have no funding for this review and put the work in as I felt it would be useful for the COVID research effort and the areas I work in - I've consulted in this area and the output of my Ph.D. are a number of papers in this field. Not having funding means that my institution will only pay the article processing charge if the journal is fully open access. Many of the journals in my area/specialism are not, only a few are.
Also, compounding this is most journals don't accept un-solicited reviews. I've researched and written the review on my own accord, and it has not been solicited by a journal --- they usually mostly solicit such reviews from their own editors), it further constrains my options for publishing.
The other educational article has been accepted in an esteemed journal in one of my fields without much issue - 3 reviewers, all positive, one suggesting a few paragraphs and the others minor amendments.
The thing is, as a post-doc, I've not had much experience in selecting/suggesting peer reviewers, nor of the art of handling the reviewers. In my previous papers, I had some amendments, which were often quite straightforward. The largest of which was to add another statistical test - I used Pearson's correlation and a prof. reviewer also wanted to see what the results would look like using Spearman's rank!
So the question, how to handle the situation when one receives largely positive feedback and then a negative reviewer causes the editor to reject the paper!?
I meant to add, that in the case of Journal 2, the reviewers request for it to be more instructional is basically requesting a totally different article/paper type, i.e. not a review. Such a paper would focus on only one of the techniques/technologies discussed and was not the aim of the work (my other educational article covers that), whereas this was clearly a review. It is really frustrating to encounter common-sense issues like this.
I know your pain and this can be super frustrating. Though it doesn't sound like it was all the reviewers fault. Journals can and do reject good papers for other reasons. With the first journal you don't know if there was a competing review or journal as whole thought they were publishing too many reviews or that they want to include other areas. It could be anything, so I wouldn't worry to much. It sounds like your paper has quality but you have just been unlucky so I would keep trying. My first paper got 3 desk rejects and a post-review reject before getting accepted with majors (granted the writing was woeful).
With the second journal, high impact journals are incredibly arbitrary and sometimes biased against early career researchers. As tempting as it is I wouldn't blame yourself and blame it on the publishing the system.
Thanks for your support and insight. I guess it's just one of those unpleasant, but unavoidable givens of academia to which one just has to persevere "tirelessly" through. I really do hope the peer-review system is overhauled and a new paradigm emerges.
I agree it is incredibly frustrating and I would prefer if we could go to an open review process. Expecting a paper to get 2-3 glowing reviews from academics, who have differing views themselves, before publishing limits what you can publish. Established authors are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt but it makes publishing as an ECR like walking on eggshells. I hate to say it but I have given up on getting into high impact journals. I would just prefer to publish and hope it gets citations.
hmm, I think an open review process would generally be much better, but then you'd still get reviewers with their own agenda writing wrong reviews but wording them plausibly so as to pursue their own agenda thereby blocking publication. My main peeve is that it just takes one negative review to throw the spanner in the works, even if that reviewer's comments are not fair or accurate, as long as they sound plausible the editor will just reject it. Editors don't always have expertise in that field and rarely stick their necks out to ignore such reviewers remarks. This is just one way in which the system can be blatantly abused.
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