I remember being a first-year grad student, sitting and having beers with some other first-year grad students and one of the "cool" PIs. We were talking about papers, and how much we thought some of them sucked. Cool PI smiled, and told us that she, too, had been ready to tear pretty much everything to shreds when she was a grad student and post-doc, but that as she grew older and wiser, she became more thoughtful, less quick to judge. Naturally, we were all quite surprised to hear this--we all expected to do more tearing things to shreds!
Since beginning my post-doc, I get reviewer requests maybe 2 times a year, which is just infrequently enough for me to be sort of flattered and happy about doing it. Cool PI's advice has really stuck with me, and I always try to be balanced in my comments, thinking carefully about the paper and finding something nice to say before considerately listing my concerns.
Sometimes, though? I can't help it. The paper is such absolute shit that the 3rd reviewer** in me starts begging to be let out, and I give in just a teensy bit. In the actual review I remain, to the best of my abilities, a paragon of equanimity and tact. In my head, however, it sounds more like this:
To the editors:
It is beyond comprehension how we live in a world in which the final author of this manuscript has an independently funded lab and I don't. The experiments contained herein--if one could even call them experiments--are poorly defined, uncontrolled, and lack any basis in the existing literature. To say that the methods are incomplete would be to expand the definition of "incomplete" beyond any semblance of its original meaning. What's that? OK fair enough, that last bit makes little sense.
The authors neglect to note the way in which their animals were sacrificed, yet it must be presumed that the animals were, indeed, sacrificed, as analysis of "the cortex" is claimed to have been done. Pray tell, would it have been too much to report which region(s) of the cortex were analyzed? It's just that I'm so curious! Of course, "analyzed" may be overstating the case, as no actual measurements or calculations were done--it is simply stated that the two experimental groups look different.
In sum, to allow this manuscript to progress even one step toward publication would be an insult to all that ever was or henceforth will be considered "science."
** In case you missed it, the "3rd reviewer" refers to to one of many Downfall parodies, particularly one in which the subtitles are altered to suggest that Hitler is a PI receiving reviews of his recently submitted manuscript. He is informed that the first two reviewers had generally favorable comments, but that a 3rd reviewer was, shall we say, considerably more harsh. Hitler is not pleased, and utters the now-infamous catchphrase, "F%*$ REVIEWER 3!!!!!" Naturally, this being a parody, it is also exactly how things happen in real life, too.
The 3rd Reviewer is also now a real website, where anyone can comment anonymously on recent high-profile neuroscience and microbiology publications. Fun!
The Plight of the Post-Doc