Of peer review and perfume: how to be sweetly rude

Year-end tends to be quiet on the work front: the time all those neglected peer reviews float to the top of the To Do list. Like so many others, I review out of a sense of duty. That same sense of duty often obliges me to say horrid things about papers or grant proposals that people have slaved over, but that just don’t make the grade. One is always worried that one is ruder than other reviewers, but more worried about allowing money or trees to be wasted on tosh. So I was delighted to find that other reviewers are just as rude.

The editors of Environmental Microbiology have published a year-end round-up of some of their more notable reviews. (pdf)

A couple that made me feel better about some of the things I’ve said:
“I suppose that I should be happy that I don’t have to spend a lot of time reviewing this dreadful paper; however I am depressed that people are performing such bad science.”

My personal favourite, because it mirrors how I feel today:
“The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about.”

In the spirit of year-end cheer, let’s pull out some praise, too:
“Many spend much more time and space to say considerably less.”

It’s funny, isn’t it, that well-honed criticism seems so much sharper a weapon in attack than fullsome praise does in defence. It’s not just in peer review. I’ve recently been enjoying dipping in to a glorious collection of reviews of perfumes, published by Profile in the UK and Penguin in the States.

Here the rapier:
Desir deRochas Femme (Rochas) bleached rose
Thoroughly unpleasant fresh-rosy floral that whines like a dentist’s drill and hurts almost as much.

Here the back-handed compliment:
Deseo (Jennifer Lopez) coconut melon
Deseo is a clever mix of sauvignon blanc and Bailey’s, or in perfumery terms, Envy and Rush. Separately, its components would cause, respectively, a toothache and tooth rot. Together they work happily to produce a shortlived but superbly trashy fragrance for eighteen-year-old girls on the prowl.

And here the fullsome praise:
Le Feu d’Issey (Issey Miyake) milky rose
Whoever did this has that rarest of qualities in perfumery, a sense of humour…A reminder that perfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence

Thanks to First Among Peers Mark Zip for the head’s up on peer review, and to Andrew Franklin for causing me to spend hours of my life buried in reviews of a product I don’t even use.

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This post was published on 21/12/10 in Science.

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  1. Comment by noah, 27/12/10, 09:07:

    hilarious, thank you

    for a favorite i would have to go with the archly simple:

    You call the sample fresh water, this is confusing as it is saline water.

    and, on perfume, for the best pithy reviews check out the Duftnote column in Nzz folio by Luca Turin. Something about describing smell is darkly humorous no matter what, maybe it has to do with the fact that even the best of smells can sour easily. Turin is good at drawing this out and a chemist to boot.

  2. Comment by Anna FDD, 02/03/11, 02:45:

    Thank you for giving me another little push towards buying this book – I finally did it yesterday and I have been laughing so much that my ribs hurt ever since. The praise is lyrical, often witty (“Reviewing Poison is like road-testing an Abrams M1 tank: people tend to get out of your way”) but it’s the one star reviews that are priceless. “Gardenia (Elizabeth Taylor) * not gardenia. Most gardenias fail to replicate the flower. Some don’t even try. This is one.” The two-words descriptions alone are hilarious: sad shampoo, horrid floral. ROTFL.

    Thank you.

    Unfortunately I do use the stuff and I see some major shopping incidents in my future…

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