This blog is called "Things I Tell My Mom" for a reason. These are all things that I really do talk to my Mom about. In fact, after posting about the trials and tribulations of publishing a paper, my Mom asked who these reviewers are anyway.
Reviewers are usually (hopefully) in the same field as the researcher so they have a background knowledge that will allow them to evaluate the research carefully and thoughtfully based on what is already known in the field. The editors select several (usually 3) reviewers who each review the manuscript independently. The good news is that in an ideal world, these well-informed reviewers will be in the best position to provide the journal with insightful feedback. The bad news is that they may like what you're working on so much that they provide suggestions for lots of additional experiments, steal the ideas in the paper and then quickly publish them before you get a chance. Is this "scooping" ethical? Nope. Does it happen? Yup. Often? Probably not that often.
You also have to keep in mind that the reviewers know who the authors of the paper are, but the reviewers' comments are anonymous. So if you get a poor review, you don't always know if it's because the manuscript is terrible or if the reviewer is someone who you are competitive with professionally or don't get along with. As my Dad aptly said, "That system sucks." This is in part why some journals are starting to offer double blind review (described in more detail here).
Besides this apparent conflict of interest, reviewers are also active researchers and therefore super busy people. If the reviewer doesn't take the responsibility of reviewing seriously, this can mean one of two things - it will take a lot of time for them to get to reviewing the paper (dragging out the waiting) or they will look through it quickly and provide a bad review. Bad reviews can reject great papers or accept terrible papers. It's an imperfect system.
Also, keep in mind that reviewers don't get compensated in any way for reviewing - it's part of a scientist's service to the scientific community. I have been a reviewer many times, and I take the job very seriously and try my best to provide a fair, complete review in a timely manner - and I expect to receive the same when I submit manuscripts as well. This is the ideal, but not always the reality.
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Dr. Cathy Seiler is the Program Manager for the tissue biorepository at St. Joseph's Hospital and Barrow Neurological Institute. She has her BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Boston University and PhD in the Biological Sciences from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research and teaching focuses on genetics, cancer, and personalized medicine. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thingsitellmymom