Reviewing #11--Reviewing an excellent paper

You get a paper from a journal and read it.  It's great!  You have no comments or criticisms.  You read it again, just to be sure, and your opinion doesn't change.  So your review consists of something like the following:  "This is the best paper I've ever read.  It's great!  I have no comments.  Publish immediately."

That's a good thing, right?

No, it is not a good thing.  Such a review is useless to an editor.  In fact, it's worse than useless.  How can that possibly be?

You're Reviewer #1.  Reviewer #2, who is an expert in one aspect of the paper, has all kind of comments and criticisms and recommends "major revisions".  Reviewer #3, who is an expert in another aspect of the paper, has all kinds of problems with the paper and recommends "reject".  Both Reviewers 2 and 3 have presented long, detailed reviews outlining the problem with the paper.  One of them may even be an expert in the same aspect of the paper that you are, but comes at the paper from a different angle.  Or maybe you missed something because you were in a rush, or you like the author, or whatever.  It happens.

This scenario is not rare.  What's the poor editor, who might not be an expert in any of the aspects of the paper, to do?

Because your review consists of four content-free sentences, it is disregarded.  The other two reviews become the basis of the decision, which is clearly not an outcome that is going to please you.

Why is this worse than useless?  Because the author is going to see your review and glom onto it as definitive, despite the fact that it is free of substance.  That's just human nature.  The author will not only pay less attention to the negative reviews, which might have important clues for revising the paper, but will instantly hate the editor for not accepting it.  If the author has certain personality traits, that hatred will express itself as a scathing email to the hapless editor.  Bad feelings all around.

The moral of this story?  Even if you think a paper is great, say why it is great.  How, specifically, will the paper contribute to the science?  How are the methodologies sound?  (Here is where you state your own expertise.)  Does this paper solve, or at least provide an important contribution to an ongoing controversy?  And so on.


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