After working its way through the peer review process for a little over two years, I just submitted the final proof for a journal article. This has been my most complete experience with the peer review process. While I have published several conference papers, the review process for those conferences is not nearly as exacting.
Throughout the process I tried to keep in mind the advice I read about in “How to Write a Lot“, and not take the reviewer comments personally. I mostly failed, but I am improving. To be honest, I was unprepared for the responses. The article was the culmination of a year of work and investigation. In my opinion, the original submission was strong and that opinion was echoed by my co-authors. The negativity and vitriol in the first set of reviews was shocking. While I was told not to take it personally, it certainly appeared the reviewers did.
Once the initial shock wore off, I went back to work attempting to alter the paper to make the reviewers happy. Pleased with the changes, I sent back the paper just two months after the first round of reviews. The response was frustrating, but as I am starting to learn, very common. Paraphrasing the responses:
Reviewer 1: The authors have addressed all of the reviewer concerns and I recommend the paper for acceptance.
Reviewer 2: The authors ignored all of the reviewer concerns and have been willfully dishonest. Not only do I recommend their paper for rejection, but I recommend the authors be exiled to some type of island prison. Alcatraz or Australia should do.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Two more months, more extensive changes to the paper, and we submit again. The reviewer response?
Reviewer 1: The authors have once again addressed all of the reviewer concerns. Accept.
Reviewer 2: Vile demonspawn! I recommend the authors be executed and buried. On the subsequent full moon, their corpses should be disinterred and subjected to further mutilation involving four kinds of…Reject.
Reviewer 3: I like the paper, but I don’t like the title. Reject.
At this point, we expected nothing less from Reviewer 2 than complete revulsion to our continued existence, so his comments were safely ignored. I assumed that since Reviewer 3’s only complaint was the title, we could simply change the title. Logically, that would mean 2 of the 3 reviewers would recommend for acceptance and the associate editor would likely agree. Unfortunately, the process is not that simple.
Since the third reviewer had marked reject after the second round of reviewing, we did not have the option for resubmitting, regardless of how trivial the required changes would be. Officially, we could submit the paper again, but it would go to a different set of reviewers and a different associate editor.
The unfortunate aspect of having fresh reviewers is that they will have all new concerns. It seems to me that no matter how good a paper is, if you give it to three new reviewers, they will all have their own complaints. I won’t bore you with the details, but the paper was finally accepted after a few rounds with the new set of reviewers.
While it was infuriating at times, the entire process was tremendously educational. I have seen the three main types of reviewers: the diligent, helpful reviewer; the vindictive, spiteful reviewer who will do everything to reject your paper, even if it means lying or misquoting you; and the disinterested reviewer. Of the at least six reviewers who saw this paper, luckily most were of the first category and only one was of the second. I also learned that no matter how satisfying it may be to point out the factual errors of the reviewers, it certainly does not endear you to them or increase the likelihood of acceptance.
As frustrating as the entire process can be, I do have to admit that it significantly improved the paper. The first submission was an interesting result presented in a heavy-handed fashion. The final product is an interesting result supported by careful analysis. Seeing the final product now, I would almost be embarrassed to show the original submitted article.