This week I am working on revising a small paper that was driven by collaborative research and mainly the work of an undergrad. It's a decent paper but nothing too exciting, and as such, we sent it to a small specialty journal. There are stories that belong in these journals and getting it out and published in some form is always better than letting it languish on a desk.
When we got the reviews back it was a classic case of Reviewer 3 syndrome (the video for which, unfortunately, appears to have been taken down). Reviewers 1 & 2 had a few minor and helpful comments, but thought the paper was fine. Reviewer 3, OTOH, went apoplectic on the thing. R3 left dozens of comments throughout the manuscript, most of which with garden variety Devil's advocate shit that can not be answered and isn't the focus of the paper. On two occassion R3 pointed out one sentence and stated "This point would make the basis of a better, more scientific paper." More scientific? WTF?
I started thinking about the times I have had this happen to me, when one reviewer 1) clearly has too much time on their hands, 2) gets themselves worked up over minor issues to the point that they think the world will end if your minor paper in a tiny journal were to be published, and 3) it's clear by the end that they went through the thing a couple of extra times just looking for anything to shit on. I came to realization that this has only happened in the small journals I have sent papers to*. Interesting.
My experience in terms of publishing in a variety of journals is pretty broad, from the little mags to big ones, and the more I thought about it the more this pattern emerged to me. I have certainly gotten bad reviews from big journals, but in those cases the message is usually "I don't like this for these big reasons", end of story. With the small journals I have on several occasions had to write lengthy responses to a mountain of minutiae, including a vicious attack on writing style. Not whether it is written in a "science" way, but just the writing style I use that the reviewer somehow found offensive to their very core ideals. Where does this mindset come from?
Is it the reviewers that will review for these journals? Maybe, but I review for some of them and have never had the urge (or time) to analyze a manuscript in this manner. Is it the editors of smaller journals having a full time job on top of editing? Possibly. Is it the level of work that gets sent to these journals? I don't know what the reasoning, but getting things published in smaller journals seems to take far more of my effort than the stories that are better suited for larger journals, making it far less appealing to get undergraduate-driven research published.
*Fully acknowledging that this can and does happen in some proportion in all journals.