A frustrated Ph.D. student
A Ph.D. student confronts unreasonably long review period and inadequate feedback. Image credit: www.theguardian.com

Key takeaways:

  • The frustrations and inconsistencies in the academic review process can be a source of demotivation for researchers.
  • There’s a perception that reviewers do not thoroughly read or understand the submissions, leading to seemingly nonsensical feedback.
  • The lengthy review period adds to the stress and frustration experienced by researchers.
  • Researchers often feel that their hard work and thorough work is not being recognized or valued appropriately due to the seemingly arbitrary nature of the review process.

A graduate student pursuing a Ph.D., known as Samuel Pierce for this article, has recently taken to Reddit to vent his frustrations over the rejection of his research paper for reasons he deems “ridiculous.”

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Mr. Pierce’s post detailed his disappointment with the critical assessment process. According to him, the evaluation of his submission was carried out hastily and without proper scrutiny.

I got 3 reviews, one of which was very detailed and truly had some interesting points, they recommended to be published after revisions. And then two reviewers that gave 10 lines of random problems some are literally answered in the text (with whole chapters on it in some occasions like verification) and some that just say straight up nothing, just gibberish,” he says.

The disgruntled student claims that the reviewers did not thoroughly read his paper, which he describes as one of the most exhaustive pieces of work that he and his team have produced. He received feedback from three reviewers, one of which was in-depth and offered practical insights, recommending publication post revisions.

However, the other two reviewers were a different story. Their feedback consisted merely of a few lines pointing out problems that, according to Mr. Pierce, were already addressed in the document, in some cases with entire chapters devoted to the matter.

The criticisms he received from these two reviewers, he stated, were largely nonsensical and bore no significant relation to the contents of his research. Mr. Pierce expressed that this level of critique is not merely disheartening but also completely inconsistent, revealing a seemingly random nature in the selection of reviewers and their subsequent feedback.

Adding to his vexation was the lengthy review period, which, in this instance, spanned over two and a half months. He felt that the process was arduous and inefficient and lacked the due diligence expected from such a system.

In his Reddit post, Mr. Pierce acknowledged the need to improve communication within the paper to eliminate any potential confusion or doubt. However, he still expressed his exasperation with the frustrating ordeal he had to endure, describing his current situation as being “back to square one.”

A Wave of Shared Experiences

Following this post, the Reddit community has chimed in, revealing a broad array of experiences and perspectives related to the academic review process.

One experienced user outlined a rule of thirds which he believes describes the typical composition of academic reviewers: one-third offering insightful, balanced feedback; another third giving inconsequential, superficial remarks; and the last third imposing their personal opinions, often addressing aspects already covered in the manuscript.

1/3 reviewers read the paper. They give insightful feedback, sometimes positive sometimes negative. 1/3 reviewers give random non committal reviews (this character isn’t displaying properly or this graph looks odd) 1/3 reviewers give clear personnel opinions many of which are already addressed in the paper, and their comments usually give them away. (Hey why didn’t you use the model created by professor so and so, and only used by them?) That’s my experience with peer review for the last few decades.

Another user revealed a particularly exasperating experience, receiving criticism for not using a method that, ironically, was the only method detailed in his research paper: 

I once got a paper rejected with a reviewer saying we should have used X method. They obviously did not read the paper because that was literally the only method we used and described in great detail in the methods section.

As these frustrations mounted, one discussion participant sought comfort and encouragement, suggesting taking time off and revisiting the reviews later with a clearer mind. They also reminded the researchers not to let such experiences demotivate them and to consider it a loss on the part of the reviewers if they failed to grasp the significance of their work: 

“Hey hang in there. It’s very natural to feel absolutely dejected and irritated. After all it’s your hard work over many months to first conduct the experiment/form hypothesis and then write it into a paper. Take some time off and read the reviews again then I am sure you will start to see a pattern and make some sense out of it. If not, then just consider it to be reviews from some stupid ass frustrated reviewers and move on to other conferences/journals. It’s just their loss that they missed out on your paper.”

Finally, an insightful comment touched upon the unpaid nature of reviewers’ work and its potential impact on their motivation and review quality. The user also questioned the potential conflict of interest in the review process, given that reviewers and researchers might be competing in the same field.

“Reviewers don’t get paid for their work so the level of motivation to do their job properly will vary. Aside from that reviewers are chosen based on how their area of expertise match with the paper’s subject. How is that not a conflict of interest if the primary goal of a scientist in academia is to publish? If you found a cow and started milking it and then find out some guys did find the same cow, what are you going to do?”

Challenges of the Review Process

As the discussion unfolded, it exposed the inconsistent, often frustrating aspects of the peer-review process. These narratives highlight the arduous journey researchers undertake and underline the need for more transparency and efficiency in academic evaluations. 

As of now, Mr. Pierce is attempting to grapple with his disappointment while planning his next course of action. His story stands as an example of the ongoing difficulties faced by numerous students and researchers in academia.

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Academic Uproar Over Discarded PhD Thesis at University of Alberta

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