When Can Peer-Reviewer Comments Be Modified by Journal Editors?

For a young researcher, any paper that gets published is very important. As any researcher knows, writing a paper requires a lot of time and resources. When a paper gets to peer examination, the author eagerly awaits the results. The next step is to closely read through all of the peer review comments and do one’s best to respond to them.

The majority of the reviewer comments are positive and supportive. A few might not be as helpful, but they are always encouraging. However, there are times when peer review comments are clearly disrespectful. These remarks have the most negative impact on a researcher’s work and damage their confidence and motivation.

Disrespectful Comments: How Common Are They?

According to a report, many scholars encounter this problem with peer reviewers. In a recent study published in PeerJ, 1106 scientists from 46 countries and 14 disciplines were surveyed. The participants were anonymous.

Most of the included scientists said at least one “unprofessional” peer review comment has been made on their papers. The majority of them had experienced this more than once. This is so common that there is a Facebook community dedicated to it, with over 25,000 members!

Unprofessional comments are not constructive, include personal threats, or are simply too harsh. A Spanish scholar, for instance, received a comment claiming that the reviewer had not yet read the paper since they were apparently under the impression that the English would be poor.

Can Journal Editors Help the Authors?

Fiona Fidler, a metaresearcher at the University of Melbourne, was furious when she learned that her evaluation of a submitted paper had been changed, often dramatically, before it was sent to the author. The phrase “very sympathetic” was changed to “generally sympathetic” or “this one is a good example” became “this one still needs work”. Moreover, although she believed her peer-review report to the journal proposed that the paper be accepted with slight changes, the author received the editor’s rejection letter.

She requested clarification from the editor of the journal. She contacted Rink Hoekstra, the journal editor. Rink was a psychologist at the University of Groningen. They wanted to work together to figure out how common this type of activity was.

What Is the Result of the Survey?

They have surveyed 322 editors from high-impact publications in fields like ecology, economics, medicine, physics, and psychology. The research looked at whether they believe it is appropriate to change peer-review reports. The survey was first released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework and later was evaluated at eLife.

According to the survey, 91% of respondents said that there was at least one case in which they would edit a report. More than 80% of them said they would edit the comments if a reviewer used derogatory terminology or made negative personal comments about the writers. However, 8% said they would alter the reviewer’s ultimate recommendation, even though they didn’t have the reviewer’s permission. Fiona, as well as the entire research community, was taken aback by this news.

Do Journal Editors Have the Authority to Change the Reviewer Comments?

Few publications provide clear guidelines on when it is necessary to edit peer-review reports. Researchers believe it is preferable to do so, and that reviewers should be able to choose whether they want to be edited or not. Clear rules would guarantee a fair and impartial procedure, regardless of how well-intentioned the editors are.

Many journals have a protection in place: reviewers are given access to both reviews and editorial opinions. They are allowed to see if their opinions were conveyed to the authors. However, according to the survey, about 20% of the editors said their journals do not provide the reviewers with either the reports or the decision letters.

If the reviews are significantly different, the editor can invite one or two more peer reviewers to try to achieve a “majority opinion”. Also, the editor can offer more weight to the reviewer who has more experience or is well-published.

Editors, too, are professionals in their fields and can use their own experience and judgment to respond to ambivalent responses. It should be noted that the final decision on whether to approve or refuse a paper is made by the editor, not the reviewer, and various factors influence this decision.

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