Peer review can be funny

A comical referee’s report from the Economic History Review illustrates some of the problems with peer review.

My paper on Argentina’s industrial output during 1870s-1913 was just rejected for publication in the Economic History Review. Two of the referees were mildly supportive, although they made many constructive criticisms that will greatly improve the paper. The editor’s decision, however, appears to have been largely based on the third referee’s 5,000-word diatribe, which I have reproduced below, with some of my favourite passages highlighted.

While the referee’s pettiness and pseudo-intellectualism is depressing, the abyss beckons when it comes to his or her numbers, which are either bogus or irrelevant.

One simple example will suffice: the referee claims that ‘in 1900 the country produced 240 tons of yarn and imported only 119 tons’ (p. 8). The first part of this claim is spurious because there are no reliable estimates of Argentine yarn production in 1900, while the second part is spurious because it is contradicted by the country’s own trade statistics, which show that in 1900 Argentina imported 2,431 tons of cotton yarn, 308 tons of wool yarn, 154 tons of linen yarn, and 636 tons of jute yarn – 3,529 tons in total, compared to the 119 tons claimed by the referee.

Such numbers may be sufficient to impress a journal editor, but to anyone with specialised knowledge of Argentina in this period they immediately stand out as bogus. It is particularly worrying that an anonymous referee is able to use such Mickey Mouse numbers to dismiss a critique of economic historians’ use of Mickey Mouse numbers!

And this, of course, is the problem with blind peer review. Referees, especially if they are chums of a journal’s editors, can get away with writing nonsense without any repercussions for their reputations. Surely a system of open peer review would be better?

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