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Handling mean-spirited and unhelpful criticism

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I'm in the middle of turning my MA thesis into an article and have received feedback from a journal that is blind reviewed. The editor was extremely kind and helpful with some general advice on how to improve my paper. As for the comments from my blind reviewer, well... they were nasty and not helpful at all. While I can understand some of the theory and framing comments, there were a handful of comments that questioned my intelligence and commitment to my work. I figured that I still had quite a bit of work ahead, but I wasn't expecting to be told to go pound rocks. Without going into them, how does one handle these type of comments? How do you try to improve your work and stay motivated? Do you move your article to another journal without making some changes?

Edited by Tigla
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Wow! Sorry that someone was being that rude, jeesh. Aren't there rules against that kind of comportment? Depending on how rude it was, think about reporting it.

Otherwise, maybe get another opinion of someone else who you trust to be blunt. It could be that the mean person was in a mood, looking to hit others?

Sorry I'm not more helpful, but hang in there, pal!

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While excessive rudeness is never a good look, you should not be submitting your work to a journal while you are "in the middle" of turning your MA thesis into an article, or when you know there remains "quite a bit of work ahead."

Rather, that is the time for feedback from your advisor, other mentors/professors, and your peers.

The review process does not exist to help you improve your paper. Only submit something that you believe is good enough to be published as it stands. Nearly always you'll need to make additional changes, but submitting a truly mature piece of scholarship will spare you from receiving a condescending, hurtful response. If it doesn't, that would be the time to file a complaint with the editor.

Please bear in mind that peer reviewers take the time out of their own busy schedules to read manuscripts, and they are not paid for this service. It's not fair to them, and ultimately not helpful for yourself, to have them read something that just isn't ready.

And please don't submit this piece to another journal without making changes unless, of course, you don't mind receiving a similar response.

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  • 1 month later...
On 3/21/2019 at 7:20 AM, PaulaHsiuling said:

but submitting a truly mature piece of scholarship will spare you from receiving a condescending, hurtful response. If it doesn't, that would be the time to file a complaint with the editor.

No, it won't. Unfortunately. Referees are nasty all the time, and not just about genuinely weak papers. Anonymity lets them take on all kinds of unwarranted airs of superiority. My discipline's blogs and social media spaces are chock full of the absolutely unforgiveable things referees have said, and not just to new members of the profession. I can point to several people who are the top scholars in the world in their respective subfields who still get referee comments like "this is garbage, even for an undergraduate; does the author even work in [our discipline]?". Such comments aren't OK under any circumstances, let alone when directed at perfectly fine pieces of scholarship.

Hell, I submitted one of my papers to a T20-30-range generalist journal which took four times its average review time to get back to me, and when it did I got twenty words of comments telling me the paper was unpublishable in any journal in the discipline. I immediately sent it unchanged to a T10 journal which accepted it in under a month.

So: the moral of the story, I think, is that you ought to ignore the cutting remarks as much as possible. Make whatever changes you need to in order to avoid getting similar complaints, but ignore the nasty commentary. If a referee is altogether too nasty, then ignore them entirely. (And yes, I agree with PaulaHsiuling that one should strive to submit work that's more or less complete, and not use the peer review system as a means of getting feedback on drafts.)

Edited by maxhgns
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  • 3 weeks later...

@maxhgns, @PaulaHsiuling, and @MoynihanBreakerBurkina

I have taken all of your advice and have steadily worked to try and improve the piece while also ignoring some of the harsher comments. After reading through it another time (I don't know what number I'm on), the reviewer does have valid points of criticism, but I still stand by my original statement that some are completely out of line for academia (my idealized version at least). Regardless, I learned to thicken my skin and prepare for the brutality of the peer review process.

Edited by Tigla
My notorious typing skills have struck again!!!
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1 hour ago, Tigla said:

...I still stand by my original statement that some are completely out of line for academia (my idealized version at least). 

FWIW, there's a running debate between myself and a coworker. I insist that while I am vindictive, I am never ever petty. The coworker disagrees. The coworker is wrong, as usual.

So were I in your situation, I would look at the comments I don't like,  and ask "Do these read like well-worn/often used jabs?" And "Are there patterns to this reviewer's writing style?"

Then, I would use Google and Jstor to run searches on the text and see what came up. As an alternative or concurrently, you could figure out who the SMEs in your field are and get some of their works and see if you can match the patterns. Once you've identified the reviewer, incorporate into your article quotes by that person's arch rival/antagonist, and some coded comments of your own.

(See, I'm not petty.)

Or you can do what you're doing now--internalizing the outstanding guidance you've received in this thread (especially from @PaulaHsiuling) and go on with life. (Which is hard, because sometimes you just want to reach out and let a professor know that he/she is acting like a dill hole. But I'm not bitter.)

An additional comment. If your article is in the areas of emphasis you mentioned previously, the kind of push back you're getting may be par for both courses. One field is notorious for especially heated debates that often devolve into personal attacks. The other field generally has exceptionally high standards.

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