When Reviewers Lie—A Growing Problem?

By Scott Forschler

I’ve received a range of responses to articles submitted to journals. A few, either immediately or after revision, were accepted and published. Of course many were rejected without comment. Others were returned with feedback, some of which was vague and nebulous, but the best of which was extremely useful for future revisions—or in convincing me that my thesis or argument was ill-conceived, and best abandoned. I am under no illusion that my prose or arguments are perfect, or my conclusions always justified or correct. I see the review process, at its best, as an extension of the dialogic method of philosophy, where an idea is proposed to invite feedback from others, whether in a classroom, or before or after publication, revealing errors, gaps, or potential for improvement.

But I trust I am not alone in sometimes receiving more disturbing reviews in which a referee blatantly misrepresents a submission’s content. I am not talking here about contentious issues of interpretation (e.g., was Hume a subjectivist? Is realism really compatible with constructivism?), but demonstrably incorrect statements about the black and white words on the page of the submission. Most recently, one referee justified rejection because I incorrectly said A and B, and failed to cite sources for my claim C or note the relevant point D. But not only did I not say A or B, I expressly denied them, cited sources for C, and asserted D in support of my thesis! Had I myself been reviewing a paper which made the idiotic statements attributed to my submission—or trusted a referee’s report on the same—I would have rejected it too. Knowing better, I am left with the frustrated realization that, in a sense, the referee did not actually review and reject my submission, but a straw man under its name, while an editor trusting in the referee’s reputation has denied me further consideration in light of the same. Resubmitting “the same paper” is forbidden—but I must wonder, does this mean the paper I actually submitted, or the figment of imagination rejected by the referee? It is tempting to resubmit it under another name, on the ground that the referee’s earlier report, if accurate, was clearly responding to a completely different paper than the current one! But I instead took the usual advice of fixing what I could—despite the unhelpful comments—and resubmitting it elsewhere.

Of course, one might suspect that my exposition was unclear, so the referee had trouble grasping that I said, or perhaps meant to say, AB etc. I don’t think so—but don’t trust my word on it. Trust the second referee assigned to my submission, who accurately and succinctly summarized my argument as “C, D, and not A and not B, so…” That referee also recommended rejection, though on grounds which were simply vague rather than blatantly inaccurate; this feedback was equally useless (except to confirm that the points misrepresented by the other referee were clear enough to more careful readers), but at least not slanderous.

In a somewhat more ambiguous case, an editor justified pre-emptory rejection on the ground that “The topic of your paper, as you are no doubt aware, has received a great deal of attention in recent years and generated a large literature,” so standards for the topic must be exceptionally high. In fact, I thought the topic had received almost no attention for fifty years, and even then inadequately. I asked for examples; a terse response named a single philosopher who, as further investigation revealed, had indeed written one article on the topic—again about fifty years ago—offering an approach only modestly different from another already discussed and rejected in the paper. I added a footnote on this point, but remained baffled that the editor thought this reference both “recent” and constituting “a great deal of attention.” My bafflement turned to bemused resignation when two months later I received an identically-worded rejection of a very different paper from the same journal. Apparently what I took to be a substantive albeit terse report was simply a boilerplate response to any article they did not care to review further for any reason. While this is not quite the same as a referee’s inaccurate report to an editor, it could certainly confuse authors desperate for substantive feedback, who might begin to doubt the adequacy of their literature reviews after receiving what may actually just be a generic brush-off.

Doubtless there are explanations for such sloppy reading resulting in factually incorrect reports. Journals are overwhelmed with submissions more than ever, just as search committees are overwhelmed with applicants. Both must ruthlessly toss manuscripts and CVs with only cursory attention and on often spurious grounds. The roots of both problems surely lie in the nature of our profession and its recent evolution, involving issues I can barely touch on here. But whatever its causes, mendacious reviews by careless referees is one of the clearest symptoms of the problem. It is worse than outright rejection; it maligns the author, subverts the integrity of the review process, and buries potential insights behind a screen of bias, obfuscation, and fallacious appeal to authority.

Most recently, one of my referees forthrightly admitted that he was the author of the article which was the main target of my own critical submission. But then he less forthrightly misrepresented his original article, twice denying that he made claims I attributed to him—despite the fact that these were clearly stated in the original article, and one of them was even repeated in a different section of the referee’s comments! Again, I complained to the editors about these blatant inaccuracies, but was told that no higher-order review of the same was to be expected.

We need to talk about how to improve this situation. If there are institutional reasons behind this phenomenon, merely urging referees to be more careful is not enough. Perhaps editors or institutions can find better ways to reward referees to encourage more of them, so each can give their assignments more attention. And perhaps editors should take complaints about biased reviews more seriously; I have complained about misrepresentations in reviews perhaps a dozen times, resulting in exactly one successful reconsideration, so it is unclear how often this actually occurs. The determination of serious misrepresentation in a report should more often be grounds for reconsidering the submission, and perhaps even for reconsidering the authority of the referee. If you have other thoughts about this problem and how to address it, let us know here—whether you are an author, referee, or editor.

 

Scott Forschler is an independent scholar, author of articles in journals such as Metaphilosophy and Utilitas, a referee for the Journal of Value Inquiry and several regional conferences, and writes book reviews for Choice magazine. He is committed to delivering reviews within a week of accepting an assignment, and is available as a referee or book reviewer for journals in need, especially in the areas of ethical theory or philosophy of agency.

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One thought on “When Reviewers Lie—A Growing Problem?

  1. What about asking the major professional organizations (the APA, the MLA, etc.) who represent individuals in specific professional fields (philosophy, literature, etc.) to establish ethics committees, which would take grievances from those attempting to publish, seeking jobs, or dealing with other job-related issues, regarding the handling of either publication of submissions or job-related (tenure track, or student/teaching policies) issues, and would then mediate between the aggrieved person and the institution in question (journal, department, etc.) in attempting to resolve the issue? Yes, this would create a huge backlog of cases, exposing the fact that these professional fields do not always operate in an ethical manner. But entities like the American Philosophical Association or Modern Language Association, which preside more or less directly over all jobs in their fields, and indirectly over things like peer review process for journal publications, and which are supported by dues from their members, certainly are capable of establishing some basic oversight over the ethical behavior of the institutions under their purview, especially since it is institutions in these fields which claim to be educating citizens to behave in an ethical manner. And as this post makes clear, some oversight on the ethical behavior of these institutions is surely necessary. I confess, I was appalled, when, on my first job, I wrote a letter to members of my department, bringing, I thought, ethical issues to their attention, and found myself forced out of my job, caught up in a grievance procedure presided over by the same individuals involved in the grievance (i.e., other department members), without the ability to bring a case in court, and unable to reenter the profession, due to inability to get letters of recommendation and support from my peers. And when I contacted my supposed professional organization, I was told they preferred not to get involved, but let each institution handle these cases in their own (obviously self-interested) fashion. Further, as a non-professional scholar attempting to publish in these fields, without scholarly support or academic credentialization, I have many, many times faced problems like those mentioned here. Certainly, we expect oversight on governmental policy, employment issues, police actions, and in all other public fields. Why not in these scholarly and academic fields, which purport to preside over the ethics of their respective communities, but do not always themselves behave in an ethical manner?

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