Being Referee #2

It has happened to all of us. You spend months refining your latest result, carefully writing it up as a well-polished manuscript. You argue with your coauthors about everything: from which version of the proof is more enlightening, to the order the ideas should be presented, and even whether $\epsilon$ or $\varepsilon$ has more typographical merit. Finally content with the manuscript, you submit it to the journal of your desires, and the long wait begins for the referee reports. When they finally arrive, there’s a short and shallow report from Referee #1 saying it’s fine, publish it, just add a citation to Refereey McRefereeFace. But then comes the long, thorny report of Referee #2. This shrivelled soul writes that your bombastic claims in the abstract are not supported by the results in the text. This arrogant asshole thinks the problem you solved is of no interest whatsoever. This heartless pedant says that your proof is nothing but a handwavy argument. This presumptuous prick argues that the whole research program was misguided to start with. And anyway it was already done a long time ago in Russia.

Well, I have a confession to make. I am Referee #2. Contrary to common misconception, I am not a sadist. I have received myself countless negative referee reports, and I know very well how much it hurts to see your work trashed like this. It breaks my heart to reject a paper, specially when I see it’s the first paper a student has ever written. Nevertheless, it is my duty. I do believe in peer-review, and I think readers should be able to trust what they read in a reputable journal. This is specially important in our age of widespread disinformation.

The most common problem a paper has is claiming too much in the abstract, what is known as overselling the result1. This is what I find most frustrating as a referee because almost always the authors know what they wrote is bullshit, they just think it’s harmless, and I should just let it slide. The argument is that anybody that reads the paper will understand what the result is actually about and disregard the abstract, which is just colourful marketing. This is true, but misses the point that almost nobody reads the paper; the vast majority of the readers will be lay people that know of the result through a press release, that credulously repeats the claims of the abstract. Great, now you’re fooling the general public that paid for the research. Even among the physicists that read the paper, most of them will not be experts, and have to take your claims at face value. So no, I will not let it slide, and I will tell the authors to cut the crap without the least bit of remorse.

When there is a technical mistake in the paper there is usually very little drama; of course it’s bad news, but the mistake was already there, and I helped find it. The authors usually just fix it and thank me in the acknowledgments. Once the authors refused to fix the mistake, the paper was rejected, and they simply resubmitted it to a different journal. Which asked me again to referee the paper. Then I got furious about wasting my time trying to help the authors, and simply copy-pasted my previous referee report.

But in the other cases? Yes, sometimes the problem you have worked on indeed interests nobody but you. I do feel sorry for the authors, but I will write that in the referee report if that’s my opinion. And when the result was in fact done a long time ago in Russia? It’s very frustrating, I know, I have also rediscovered stuff that was published in the Siberian Journal of Mathematics. Life sucks, but what can I do? We have to respect the priority of Soviet physicists. And when the research program was a terrible idea in the first place? Well, I wrote that in my referee report only once, and it was really heartbreaking, as it was also the first paper of a PhD student. I decided to say it anyway, because otherwise the student would probably spent the rest of their PhD working on a nonsensical idea, and their career would go down the drain. I tried to be gentle about it, but sometimes being gentle doesn’t help when the news is that your mother has died.

Perhaps you’re not convinced, and want anyway to punish Referee #2 for the negative reports. Well, I have a feeling that editors know that I’m strict with my referee reports, so they send me papers they want to be rejected. Every day I see really nice papers getting published, but somehow they never come to me for refereeing. So rest assured, being Referee #2 is its own punishment.

EDIT: And just after I posted this, I got rejected from TQC with this paper. The killing blow came in fact from Referee #2: “Overall, I enjoyed reading this work. It starts with a clear and well-motivated question and mixes up wisely several ingredients from the theory of non-locality in order to tackle it. However, I did not find the results that exciting.” Oh, that hurts!

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