Confidential Reviewer Comments To Editors

Sep 15 2008 Published by under Peer Review

An acquaintance of mine, despite receiving what appear to be very enthusiastic reviews on one of her manuscripts, including language like this:

I found the results interesting and intriguing. They represent one of the first serious attempts to understand poogly-plugs at the cellular level. Thus, the work is of great importance and interest to the poogly-plug field. In addition, I believe that these findings are also of broad interest to researchers outside the poogly-plug field.

This is typical boilerplate language meant to convey "publish this motherfucker!" So what's the fucking problem?


Turns out that the reviewer who wrote the above also--and one of the other reviewers who also made very enthusiastic noises in the Comments to Authors--selected this as the confidential recommendation to the editor:

Appropriate for a more specialized journal.

On the basis of these confidential reviewer recommendations, the editors have declined to make a decision "At This Time", which has my acquaintance fucking pissed off.
I have two thoughts about this situation.
(1) The editor handling this manuscript is a complete fuck-up. It is the responsibility of the editor to call out reviewers on inconsistency between their Comments to Authors and confidential Comments to Editor and Recommendation. The editor should have contacted these reviewers and said, "Yo, fuckwit! What's the fucking dealio with this shit? Make up your fucking mind!"
(2) This kind of shit is exactly the reason why I am starting to get on board with the notion that there should be *no* confidential reviewer comments to the editors or secret reviewer "recommendations" for a manuscript's disposition.
In fact, I have ceased giving confidential reviewer comments when I review papers except in the rare circumstances where something looks "fishy" to me. Unfortunately, the secret "recommendations" cannot really be avoided, because refusal to provide one is generally interpreted as a ding against the paper, rather than as neutral.

14 responses so far

  • whimple says:

    What's the problem? The confidential comments to the editor are definitive in these cases, especially when the reviewers come down 2 out of 3 on this. Send the work to a more specialized journal.

  • PhysioProf says:

    What's the problem?

    The problem is that this kind of shit creates a lack of confidence in the fairness and accuracy of the peer review system. Why should one assume that it is the confidential comments that are the correct assessment of the manuscript, and not the comments to the authors?

  • neurlover says:

    "What's the problem?"
    Well, I'd say, because "In addition, I believe that these findings are also of broad interest to researchers outside the poogly-plug field." conflicts with "appropriate for a more specialized journal"
    I think the key for confidential remarks is that they shouldn't conflict with the real remarks (and I'm sure editors hate them when they do, too).
    The reviewer should have just said "findings are of broad interest, but would be appropriate for a more specialized journal than this really really broad journal." Then, there'd be no conflict. It wouldn't make any author happier, but at least there'd be no conflict.
    I hate those little boxes. But, I guess when I say that, I do also still believe that they are useful when something is awesome -- when I have a student who I think is fabulous, or a paper that's going to change the field, it's easy to check off the box.

  • bill says:

    If that was a confidential comment, how come I'm reading it?
    I don't care for confidential remarks and never make them as a reviewer, but if a journal offers a confidential forum and then -- as appears to have happened here -- disregards that confidentiality, I certainly would not have further dealings with that journal.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Journals editors will frequently share "confidential" comments off-the-record with authors, but only in an oblique fashion. The fact that this particular fucknut editor did so explicitly is further evidence of her complete fuckwittitude.

  • yolio says:

    I just don't get it about the secret comments; I'm never sure what to put there. It seems to me that if it is part of my review, then it is something that the author should hear about.
    I get that there may be rare situations where something weird is going on where it might be a good idea to be sneaky. But the review is more or less anonymous, so generally you should be able to be candid. I feel like if I am not prepared to stand behind and defend a comment, then it shouldn't be part of the decision process.
    Also, it is seriously confusing when substantive parts of the decision are based on comments that the author never sees. How are they supposed to improve the paper if they aren't really being told what is wrong with the paper?

  • Liam says:

    I agree with PP, this kind of circumstance can really undermine confidence in the peer review system. Without a doubt, the confidential remarks should reflect the review that the authors are given. If the reviewer thinks the manuscript should be published in a specialized journal, then that can be articulated to the authors with supporting reasons so the authors have an opportunity to challenge them. In fact, I limit my confidential remarks to thanking the editor for the opportunity to participate in the editorial process. My critique to the authors says everything else.

  • Hey now, I don't think the editor is a fuckwit. I think the editor likes the paper and wants it in (although perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part), and is trying to come up with some justification for ignoring the 2/3 recommendation to dump the paper.
    What I don't get is why the reviewers would say such nice things and then trash it. If you think the paper is destined for lower-profileness--just say so. I'm a big girl.

  • Albatross says:

    While the editor shouldn't have shared confidential comments, isn't the editor less of a fucknut for taking the issue to the editorial group meeting? It doesn't seem like pointing out to a reviewer that they actually suck as a reviewer will result in a fair and accurate assessment of the manuscript.
    I'm currently in the opposite situation. Mostly negative reviews that call for impossible changes to the experiments, yet an invitation to revise and resubmit. Either my editor realizes that parts of the reviews are ridiculous or is pure evil.

  • NM says:

    I also very rarely use the confidential comments section.
    I have used it twice. Once was when I thought the data had already been published. The other was to tell the editor to publish the thing.
    I have also been the victim of a failure of confidentiality. An anonymous peer review went out with my name attched to the bottom of it. Luckily, I was the reviewer calling for acceptance after revisions.

  • Did the editor compromise confidence on the "confidential comments" section per se or was it another part of the review form that only the eds see? Many of the journals for which I review now have these growing lists of pulldown menus asking for priority ratings, specific deficiencies of the ms, suitability for other society journals, whether the expts were done under the correct phase of the moon, etc. Perhaps the reviewer wrote all that nice stuff about the poogly-plugs but then innocently ticked the box about "specialty journal" and the ed used that one point to make the decision (a stupid move on the part of the ed but I'm just trying to appreciate the situation).
    I never use the confidential comments section when reviewing and contend that that it is unnecessary. But the pulldown menus are essentially proxies for confidential comments to the editor. The damn online system won't accept my reviews unless I tick the boxes or select from the menus.

  • NM says:

    Abel
    In that particular review I did not use any confidential comments. But the open comments were supposed to be anonymous. It was my name that was disclosed in conjunction with my supposedly anonymous comments.

  • Art says:

    I try to use these confidential comments to chide, prod, hint, or otherwise press an editor to correct an error (s)he has made. Things like "why did you listen to reviewer X of the previous submission, whose review was a piece of crap?" "This paper is written very poorly - didn't you read it before sending it out?"
    Not in so many words, mind you. But along lines such as these.

  • DSKS says:

    Wow, that is eerily similar to the fate of a paper we sent out earlier this year. The boilerplate response is bang on, although the editor didn't quote the confidential remarks, but merely inferred that they suggested a more technical journal would be appropriate. "But he said it was suitable for broad...!!" So it goes.
    I can't see the justification for any critique of a submitted manuscript, or discussion of its suitability for publication, not being openly accessible to the authors.
    Peripheral issue such as those Art describes above, are perhaps more appropriate for confidential remarks.
    Albatros said,
    "Mostly negative reviews that call for impossible changes to the experiments, yet an invitation to revise and resubmit."
    I think that's becoming quite common, particularly in the more technical journals where there is a degree of competition for manuscripts. Basically, they're saying "Once you've done all of these experiments and made the manuscript absolutely stellar, make sure you send it back to us first!"

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