Despite my prolific blog output, I managed to find time earlier this year to write a paper. It was a labour of love, passion and frustration at Word’s image handling system. As a new academic and as a proto-academic, I have been given lots of training on how to write papers. They are the life blood of academia and without them the profits at Elsevier would crash and a lot of very fancy London offices would suddenly be empty – the high-end office market will be the true victim if publishing ever loses it’s vast profit margins…
But writing papers is just the first step in getting your work published. No training ever prepared me for reviewer comments.
For those not familiar with reviewer comments, when you submit a paper it gets sent out to a crack team of other academics for ‘peer review’. These reviewers write a short report and critique of the paper, which you are then asked to reply to in some meaningfully interesting way.
Now replying is very important, because these reviewers are the gate keepers to getting your work published. If they don’t like the cut of your jib then your paper on jib construction is going to be relegated to a folder on your computer labeled “rejected”. Pleasing them and replying is something that most academics are left to work out for themselves. I think this trial by fire approach to staff training leaves a lot to be desired, so to help any new researchers out there I’ve prepared this handy guide that none of you should in any way follow.
First off – the second those comments come in, open them up. Doesn’t matter what you are doing drop everything and open that e-mail, the sooner you read the comments the quicker your mind will be put at ease. There’s nothing worse than spending time overthinking and worrying about comments, and reading them will instantly assuages any worries you have.
Editors know this and will often try to very nicely wait until just as you are going home, until Friday evening or on the first day of your holiday. They want to make sure your mind is put at ease.
Now only the cream of academics get to review papers. They are carefully selected by editors during discussion sessions that can take hours to ensure that the honour of peer reviewing a piece of work is given to the right academic. Through this system, you can always be sure that the people reviewing your paper are almost certainly the very best people in your field and know literally everything about your work, and are there to help. So anything they write is only in both the interests of you and your work. This help can some times read strangely but rest assured, it’s only written with the utmost care and consideration. A review is sacrosanct and would never be used to settle petty scores or hold meaningless grudges.
Typically reviewers tend to write their replies in a simple 3 act structure. Sometimes this might be hard to discern as they might compress all this into a single paragraph or occasionally a single sentence. Punctuation and grammar comes second to conveying their expert opinions.
The reply you receive will likely start with a short paragraph describing your paper. This is to help remind you what paper they are talking about as you might have forgotten. Like most academics, you probably publish far too many papers to keep track of which one they are talking about and this paragraph is a helpful little reminder.
Second, is a withering breakdown of everything wrong with your paper, your research methods, and you as an individual. This may look and read like a vicious personal attack but don’t be deceived – the reviewers are actually very nice people and they only wrote all those things because ‘other’ people might say things like that to you, and they want to help prepare you for these uncalled for attacks on your work. Sometimes you might even find these comments don’t even fit the paper you wrote and read like someone reviewing a totally different paper. This is just the reviewers testing you.
Finally, they will give you a series of points to correct. Often these won’t actually have anything to do with previous paragraphs tearing everything apart and are normally a list of minor typos. Reviewers are amazing at seeing every double space or use of a − instead of a – . If they don’t catch these errors now, frankly you’d be the laughing-stock of the scientific community.
Now that you understand the meaning behind the reviewer comments, you can begin crafting a reply. This is simple, provided you approach your reply with the same professionalism and decorum as those reviewing your work. So first off, it’s important to write back with as much hostility as possible. This is to show that you feel passionately about your work. The reviewers will have taken the time to look through your work and now it’s your turn to show how much you care and how hard you’ll work to protect it. To begin, take half the comments at random and write a scathing rebuttal – preferably explaining at length how wrong the reviewers are. Scientific accuracy doesn’t matter here, you need to show the depth of your anger. Much like the comments they left for you, the more personal the more it displays a depth of caring and interest.
Secondly, for the other half, make a few changes and write passive aggressive replies explaining how much correcting that one equation with an obviously missing term was obviously SO critical to the conclusions of the paper. This dismissive attitude is great for showing the reviewers that you are a confident academic who doesn’t need help and is professional enough to stand out on your own. Just agreeing with them will only make them worry that you are not assertive enough.
Finally, once your reply is prepared, wait as long as possible before sending it back – preferably, on the day of your deadline. This will leave plenty of time between their initial review and your replies for them to forget everything about it. They will then have to revisit your work again with fresh eyes which is always helpful for making sure the reviewer can give as an objective a decision as possible.
If you follow this guide then I guarantee that any reviewer would immediately recommend your paper for publication. Sometimes you might find the reviewer likes you paper so much that they recommend that it be published in any other journal than the one you’ve submitted it to. This is the reviewers way of indicating that your paper is so good you should consider possible submitting it to a more prestigious journal like Nature or Science.
Matthew (@MCeeP) · 16 January 2017 at 12:40
If you’d like an actually good guide then go read this instead: http://jovanevery.ca/communicating-manuscript-edits/
Jo VanEvery · 16 January 2017 at 14:06
Thanks for the link. That one is part 2. The first part is here: http://jovanevery.ca/managing-manuscript-edits/. Both posts have links to other relevant stuff on peer review, too.
Also, I think it is shameful that new academics are not given more guidance about the role of peer review and how to deal with that part of the process. Because a Revise and Resubmit is the thing you are aiming for. An unconditional accept is almost as rare as unicorns.