By Trevor Hedberg
If you stay in the profession long enough, eventually you submit your work to journals and receive comments on your work from reviewers. Unfortunately, reviewer comments are not only often negative but also unhelpful. In my own experience, when I get rejections with comments, I am usually only able to use about half of those remarks to improve the paper. In a few of these cases, I haven’t been able to use any of the reviewer comments for that purpose.
In a previous post on the topic of peer review, Jason Stanley mentioned some advice offered by Robert Nozick: simply send the paper along to the next journal, and don’t worry about the comments. There are circumstances where that strategy is appealing, but in the cases where a reviewer genuinely identifies a problem with the paper, I usually try to solve the problem before sending it somewhere else. (I understand the motivation to send as much material to as many journals as possible in quick succession, highlighted well in this post, but if I genuinely believe that the revision will improve the paper and think the revision can be done without needing to write a new paper altogether, I can't bring myself to ignore the criticism without feeling intellectually irresponsible.) In part, this is why unhelpful reviewer comments can be so frustrating.
By “unhelpful” reviewer comments, I am not referring to inflammatory or offensive comments. While those definitely aren’t helpful, I think of them as a separate category altogether. Here are a few examples of comments that I’ve encountered in the last few years (most more than once) that I considered unhelpful: