An Interview with Reviewer #2

Peer review, the cherished academic tradition of having your work criticized by anonymous angry people, is an excellent chance for you to see your prose violated in public. According to one publisher, peer review also helps "increase networking opportunities," in that after having your paper reviewed you will become very, very interested in finding out the names and addresses of all your reviewers.

The reviewing panel consists of two or three reviewers, known by their pseudonyms "Reviewer #1," "Reviewer #2," "Johnny Two-Knuckles," "Icepick Willie," and so on. As everyone knows, the review process tends to be a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine, with Reviewer #1 being nice and lenient - pointing out you shouldn't use Comic Sans font, for instance - while Reviewer #2 is so offended to read your paper that he thinks you should, in so many words, die.

Reviewer #2 is in fact a man named Gary who owns a hardware store in Winnipeg. Although no longer in academia, Gary is still the man who can be counted on, when the chips are down, to write a scathing review of whatever he's reading. Editors scramble to recruit Gary when confronted with a paper they may have to accept, and he is regularly solicited for freelance reviewing. This week we caught up with Gary at his summer home on the banks of Lake Manitoba.


Andy's Brain Blog: How did you become interested in reviewing?

Gary: I took a psychology class in college where we critiqued each other's class projects that were written like scientific articles. Then we anonymously reviewed each other's papers. The professor was impressed that I managed to reject every single paper that I read, and that I also managed to make unnecessary remarks about the author's intelligence and work ethic. At the time I didn't even know what rejecting a paper meant. It just came naturally to me. He put in a good word for me at Elsevier.

ABB: And what happened then?

Gary: Well, I began reviewing everything I read. One time I got so into it that I ended up reviewing the back of a cereal box. It was an accident, but the review was accepted anyway. Two employees at General Mills got fired because of it.

ABB: Wow.

Gary: Yeah. There were grammatical mistakes on there like you wouldn't believe. I couldn't follow the logic of how solving a word game would help Buzz escape from a bank vault full of honey. And the figures were atrocious.

ABB: What was the most memorable review you ever did?

Gary: It's funny you ask, because just last week I returned from the annual Reviewer's Gala in Manhattan. It's a private party for those who have the highest rate of rejecting manuscripts, with awards given for achievements like Most Papers Rejected, Most Brutal Review, Most Irrelevant Comment, and so on. This year I won the prize for Most Hurtful Comment, which went something like: "Writing this paper didn't make you a terrible scientist - you were born one." When the emcee read that line, the audience went wild.

ABB: What is the most ridiculous comment you've ever gotten someone to address?

Gary: I'm not that good at making crazy requests, but one of my fellow reviewers - Carl - can get people to do almost anything. One of his comments was, and I quote: "This is a strong paper, but I think it would be even stronger if, for some reason, all of the authors did the gallon challenge, and uploaded a video of it to YouTube. Now obviously you don't have to do this, but you should, because I am a reviewer."

ABB: They actually did that?

Gary: Yeah. One of them had to go to the hospital. Carl felt pretty bad about that one.

ABB: What advice would you give to a first-time reviewer?

Gary: Rejecting a paper takes a tremendous amount of courage. We've all had the temptation to accept a paper because the science was "solid," or because the logic was "air-tight," or because one of the authors secretly gave us "money." Be firm! I find that I write my best reviews when I'm pissed off about something that has nothing to do with the paper, such as getting something in the mail about taxes.

ABB: You owe a lot of taxes?

Gary: No, I just found out about them, as a concept. They're ridiculous. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about that will get you in the right mood to review a paper.

ABB: Have you ever accepted a paper?

Gary: No.

ABB: Never?

Gary: Never-ever.

ABB: Never even come close?

Gary: Well, there have been a few times. Maybe if one of the authors had the same last name as a celebrity I like, such as Barry Manilow or Kenny G. But other than that, no.

ABB: How long does it take you to write a review?

Gary: Not long. I have a template that I follow, which is a lot like Mad-Libs. For example, "This is an interesting [study / review / prophecy], but I find the [results / figures / theology] unconvincing because I am [an expert / a skeptic / a nun]." Things like that.

ABB: So, how long does it take to get back to the authors? A couple of days? A week?

Gary: No, no, nothing like that. The review takes a couple of days at the most, but you can't let the editor think that you're just blowing through it. I sit on it for at least a few months.

ABB: What are your strategies for writing a review? Is it to always go negative, or what?

Gary: Well, you have to be careful about that. Writing only negative comments raises suspicions that you're taking out your own frustrations and lack of success on the authors instead of addressing their arguments. I aim for a mix of negative comments, nitpicking, and vague sentences. Vague sentences are great, because the authors aren't going to admit that they don't understand what you're saying. Asking an academic to be clear is like asking him to take his clothes off - it's a rude request, almost obscene. So instead they reply as though they understood perfectly what you were saying. It's amazing to see how they try to interpret what is in fact nonsense.

ABB: Can you give an example?

Gary: Sure. Let me see - here's one: "Among the considerations that arise at this stage are the likelihood that the manuscript would seem of considerable interest to those working in the same area of science and the degree to which the results will stimulate new thinking in the field, although we cannot be persuaded of the justifiability, synergy, or translatability of how these results integrate with the conclusions and narrative of Fensterwhacker et al, 2009. Are you professional. Also, you spelled 'their' wrong (should be 'they're': p. 19)."

ABB: I have no idea what that means.

Gary: Exactly.

ABB: How do they respond?

Gary: Usually they begin with something like "We thank the reviewer for their insightful comment," or "We are just thrilled by this excellent suggestion," or "I simply cannot wait to meet this reviewer in person and show him how incredibly, insanely grateful I am, which in no way would include kidnapping his dog." It's interesting how far someone will bend over backwards to address a comment that could've been written by a complete space loon.

ABB: Why do you keep doing this? You're not in academia anymore.

Gary: I try to focus on the big picture. I think that by irritating so many people, everybody will have something in common to talk about. Then they can bond over their shared frustrations and challenges. It makes academia more like a family, except in the sense of being related to or liking or caring about one another.

ABB: Gary, thanks for your time.

Gary: You spelled "your" wrong.