Anonymous referees

The public sphere is in trouble these days, and part of the problem is online anonymity. Disinhibited people say the most brutal things, sometimes intending to hurt, other times just because what should hold them back?

We academics have known an elite version of this effect for years. Perfectly reasonable referees — these are our friends! — lose all sense of politeness when carrying out their anonymous duty. Alex Townsend and I hit an extreme example a few years ago with a manuscript we worked on with great care for many weeks and then submitted to SIAM Review. A referee said the paper was “simplistic,” “unscholarly,” “pointless,” “lacking in insight,” “sloppy,” “misleading,” “outdated,” “unevenly written,” “not up to the standards of SIREV,” and “a severe misrepresentation of the field.” He/she added that rather than consider the theory of matrix factorizations, as was the subject of our manuscript, we should “start with the simulation of a wing attached to an Airbus in turbulence.” If you’ve ever written a paper on theoretical linear algebra, you’ll have an idea of how bewildering such advice can be.

A case so extreme is easily laughed off, and this paper ended up published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. But less extreme cases can be painful indeed, and in my experience they are the rule, not the exception. Prof. Jekyll becomes another creature entirely when he doesn’t have to sign his name.

[16 December 2020]

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