My friend Christian Jones and I have joked for at least a year about that one reviewer- you know the one- who provides you with those comments that either can’t be responded to without completely redesigning your study or who makes completely irrelevant comments about your manuscript (leaving you wondering if they even read it). Simply as a matter of levity, we’re referred to that person as Reviewer #2- and while Reviewer #2 in the style we’re talking about doesn’t happen every time, it happens often enough that the phenomenon is worthy of a “Do this…not that” list. Hopefully it can also provide some guideposts for junior colleagues whoa re just starting to dip their toe into the world of serving as a reviewer, a task that can be wonderful, frustrating, rewarding, and sometimes even demoralizing.
As someone whose work is reviewed, it’s important to consider if it’s a bad (meaning negative) review because your work wasn’t up to the standard of the journal you chose (no, that retrospective review with 30 patients is not going to make it into JAMA), or because your work truly was lacking in quality in some way. I always spend time reading the reviews and trying to figure out if the submitted work was deficient in the ways described by the reviewers. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes their recommendations/ comments/ queries enable me to submit a stronger manuscript.
And then there are the Reviewer #2 comments, which can range from questions that have nothing to do with your study itself, to “I simply don’t like it.” How can each of us commit to not being Reviewer #2?
-Spend the time. Being a reviewer isn’t easy, and its honestly an honor. If you’re not going to have the time to devote to the review, don’t agree to do it. Further, if you read the article title and realize you’re not interested/ lack expertise in the content, don’t agree to do it. Get the idea?
-Do the manuscript’s hypothesis/ study goals align with the conclusions, and do the methods used make sense in that context?
-Do the results tell a “story” aligned with the hypothesis/ goals, and does that story support the conclusions?
-Do the authors overstate their findings in some way, making a MUCH bigger deal out of their study than it deserves? Alternatively, are the authors understating their findings in some way? Is this something novel or innovative that they should highlight more strongly?
-Have the authors appropriately noted the limitations of their study? And have they provided some idea of what might be appropriate “next steps”?
-Don’t overlook IRB approval- I’m often amazed at how many studies I review where the authors have forgotten to include this information.
-Be constructive, remembering that as a reviewer it’s not necessarily your job to “fix” all of the broken things in the manuscript. That’s the senior author’s role and responsibility- though you can make suggestions in terms of what you think should be fixed.
–If it’s not helpful/ actionable, don’t put it in your review (exception: if you have a complex question that is clearly beyond the scope of the study but you want to ask/ put on the author’s radar screen, it’s acceptable to put it in the review and state that you expect no response). Reviews are no place for snark.
Remember, ladies and gentlemen, only you can prevent Reviewer #2!