Earlier today I finished revising and resubmitting a paper. It seems like the stages of revision after a referee report are very similar to the stages of grief: denial (no, referee, this proof is NOT incomplete), anger (this referee is such a jerk), bargaining (well, maybe I can fix this part but not this part), depression (I will never be able to publish this paper), and acceptance (well, maybe the referee is making some very good points and I should go ahead and fix everything he suggests). I am sure I went through all of these, and have come out with a renewed respect for referees and the jobs they do. I mean, there were a couple of important comments she/he made that I hadn’t even thought about before, and definitely fixing those things made my paper much much better. But until a few days ago, I felt so bitter about the whole thing. This is why I will put this referee into the “unsung hero” category. He/she did a great job, but it took me a while to recognize it.
In fact, all of my referee experiences have been similar, but I think I may have been very lucky in this respect. I mean, I was a bit more bitter when a referee report a while ago started with “This is a very good paper and very fun to read” and immediately followed by “but I can’t recommend it for publication because the results are just not that interesting”. What a perfect way to ruin someone’s day, right? However, a friend of mine pointed out that it wasn’t that much worse than the inverse: “This paper has very good results but I can’t recommend it for publication because the writing is abysmal” (which he got once). And I imagine, from the referee’s perspective, that bad writing can probably make your life very difficult. Some referees are aware that some of this comes from people for whom English is a second language (like my aforementioned friend). Another friend got the suggestion to get a native English speaker to help her with her manuscript, not knowing that she was one herself!
But I have certainly been very lucky, as I said before. I have heard some horror stories about really mean referee reports, and I’m glad that so far I haven’t gotten any. I mean, in every report that I’ve read it’s been clear (after going through the five stages of course) that the people on the other end were genuinely trying to help me.
I haven’t refereed any papers yet, but I have been editing for the American Mathematical Monthly for a while, and I get to pick referees for certain papers and if the paper is clearly wrong for the Monthly I get to reject it. So I can imagine how difficult it is to review a paper. You want to help other mathematicians (or at least, I do), but you do need to think about whether the paper is appropriate for your publication, and you have to judge with some detachment the results in the paper. In the case of the Monthly, the level of writing needs to be very good, too. I can’t understand being mean to someone, and I wonder if some of the stories I’ve heard maybe have come from people who haven’t yet gone through all the stages. I do know that there is a lot of competition in some areas, and that maybe rivalries can develop. How awful would it be if your rival got your paper to review? This is the true referee arch-nemesis situation. Still, a reasonable person would decline to review a paper if there were personal feelings involved, but movies have taught me that a true nemesis is not reasonable.
So, dear readers, I though I would open it to those of you with more experience in the matter. Does one referee in your past particularly stand out as an unsung hero? Do you have an arch-nemesis refereeing your papers? What is your worst or best story? Any advice for those of us who might get stuck in one of the stages of revision grief? Did you have a particularly difficult decision to make as a referee? Please share your referee stories in the comments below.