Everyone gets rejected. And it never stops being painful not matter how successful or how long you have been in the business. Some of this is inevitable; not everyone is above average. But some of it isn't. I thought that I would offer some dos and don’ts for reviewers out there to improve the process and save some hurt feelings, when possible. Some are drawn from personal experience; others, more vicariously. I have done some of the "don’ts" myself, but I feel bad about it. Learn from my mistakes.
(Author's note: I'd like people to focus on the ideas in this piece, not the strong language, so I've substituted a new version with all the same points, but a few different words.)
First, and I can’t stress this enough, READ THE PAPER. It is considered impolite by authors to reject a paper by falsely accusing it of doing THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what it does. Granted, some people have less of a way with words than others and are not exactly clear in their argumentation. But if you are illiterate, you owe it to the author to tell the editors when they solicit your review. It is O.K. – there are very successful remedial programs they can recommend. Don’t be ashamed.
Second, and related to the first, remember the stakes for the author. Let us consider this hypothetical scenario. In a safe estimate, an article in a really top journal will probably merit a 2-3 percent raise for the author. Say that is somewhere around $2,000. Given that salaries (except in the University of California System) tend to either stay the same or increase, for an author who has, say, 20 years left in his/her career, getting that article accepted is worth about $40,000 dollars. And that is conservative. So you owe it more than a quick scan while you are on the can. It might not be good, but make sure. Do your job or don’t accept the assignment in the first place. (Sorry, I don’t usually like scatological humor but I think this is literally the case sometimes.)
Third, the author gets to choose what he/she writes about. Not you. He/she is a big boy/girl. Do not reject papers because they should have been on a different topic, in your estimation. Find fault with the the paper actually under review to justify your rejection.
Fourth, don’t be petty and whiny. Articles should be rejected based on faulty theory or fatally flawed empirics, not a collection of little cuts. Bitchy grounds include but are not limited to – not citing you, using methods you do not understand but do not bother to learn, lack of generalizability when theory and empirics are otherwise sound. The bitchiness of reviews should be inversely related to the audacity and originality of the manuscript. People trying to do big, new things should be given more leeway to make their case than those reinventing the wheel.
Fifth, don’t be a jerk. Keep your sarcasm to yourself. Someone worked very hard on this paper, even if he/she might not be very bright. Writing “What a surprise!”, facetiously, is not a cool move. Rejections are painful enough. You don’t have to pour salt on the wound. Show some respect.
Sixth, remember that to say anything remotely interesting in 12,000 words is ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE. Therefore the reviewer needs to be sympathetic that the author might be able to fix certain problems when he/she is given more space to do so. Not including a counterargument from your 1986 journal article might not be a fatal oversight; it might have just been an economic decision. If you have other things that you would need to see to accept an otherwise interesting paper, the proper decision is an R&R, not a reject. Save these complaints for your reviews of full-length book manuscripts where they are more justifiable.
Seventh, you are not a film critic. Rejections must be accompanied by something with more intellectual merit than "the paper did not grab me" or "I do not consider this to be of sufficient importance to merit publication in a journal of this quality." This must be JUSTIFIED. You should explain your judgment, even if it is something to the effect of, "Micronesia is an extremely small place and its military reforms are not of much consequence to the fate of world politics." Even if it is that obvious, and it never is, you owe an explanation.
Brian C. Rathbun is associate professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. This essay is adapted from a blog post by Rathbun at The Duck of Minerva.