Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Thrill of the Paper, The Agony of the Review: Part Two

( Part one of this article was published on 10 September.)

Some Strategies to Try in the Game

It is from the dual perspectives of author and reviewer that I offer the following strategies. If you adopt these strategies, I cannot guarantee you will always win, but I bet that you will find the game of publication to be a whole lot more fun.

  • Write your manuscript as you would a story.

    The reviewers use a good deal of cognitive energy just reading your manuscript. You want them to read your manuscript using as little energy as possible, so write it as you would a story. Imagine your manuscript is a trail through some forest. Organize the conceptual building blocks of your scientific story so the reviewers know where they are headed before they arrive: You want the trail to be marked clearly. If the reviewers lose the trail, they can find it again, but they will have wasted valuable energy in so doing. And they are likely to ask--I would--that you rewrite the manuscript so the trail is obvious.

  • Be meticulous about the appearance of your manuscript.

    Attention to every detail of your manuscript is important: It reflects upon you. If your manuscript departs from journal style, if it contains spelling errors, or if it lists references in different formats, then the reviewers may think you are careless. They may next wonder about the care you used in the experiment. Follow journal style, and proof your manuscript. Yes, this is extra work. Yes, this extra work is worth it.

  • Simplify the life of the reviewer.

    If you are like most authors, you respond to each comment from a reviewer using a label, usually a number, that corresponds to the label used by the reviewer. Imagine, however, that you are the reviewer. What must you do to learn how the authors have addressed your comment? You must pull out your review, locate the labeled comment, reread that comment, and verify that the authors' response corresponds to your comment. Only now can you evaluate how well the authors have satisfied your concerns. Not a friendly process, is it. Help the reviewer: Before your response, repeat verbatim the essence of the comment; in your response, include the precise location of any change that resulted from the comment. Here is an example:
    1. The authors should address ways of handling multiple comparisons. ... [I] feel scientists should be made aware of its problems and given some approaches for dealing with it.
    Response. We agree that a discussion of multiple comparisons is important, but we are concerned that more than a brief mention is beyond the scope of this [review]. We have added [comments] and provided references [manuscript location: page x, paragraph y, line z].

  • Focus on the scientific substance of a comment.

    Now and then, you may find a reviewer's comment to be snide or condescending. Sometimes, that's because the comment is snide or condescending. More often than not, it's because you have misinterpreted the comment. Even if you happen to be right, it will do you no good whatsoever to respond specifically to the tone of a comment. Ignore tone, and focus instead on substance.

  • Use reviewer comments to improve your manuscript.

    Even well-meaning comments from the reviewers may prompt you to wail, "What?!" But remember the object of the game: a published manuscript. Consider comments from the reviewers to be red flags that show you need to fix a problem of some kind. With this philosophy, you can use even the most remarkable comment to improve your manuscript.

  • Argue for what you believe in.

    A reviewer makes a comment for some reason, but not all comments obligate you to revise your manuscript. Consider the words chosen by the reviewer: They will suggest whether the reviewer expects compliance--if I ask for a revision crucial to clarity, then I expect the revision to be made--or whether the reviewer will tolerate disagreement. Most reviewers realize that disagreements are part of science. If you disagree with a reviewer, make sure you fully justify your stance.

  • If a reviewer is intractable, unreasonable, or belligerent, involve the editor.

    Most reviewers comment or question to help you justify your science or improve your paper. Some reviewers, however, write unprofessional reviews and are unwilling to listen to your considered responses. Are you sunk--should you pack your bags for New Zealand--if one of these people happens to review your paper? Not necessarily. If you have presented evidence that supports your case but the reviewer refuses to hear the evidence, then summarize the facts of the case to the editor. It is the responsibility of the editor to supervise the process of review and to arbitrate disputes. Parenthetically, reviewers have reputations; the editorial staff of a journal knows who its difficult reviewers are.

  • Remember that this is a game you want to win.

    It is difficult to respond to comments made by the reviewers. Not only is it difficult scientifically, but it can be difficult emotionally. You invested a huge amount of effort in writing the paper. In private, vent your reactions however you like. Ranting and raving does wonders for one's soul! Respond to the reviewers, however, in a manner that is objective and is geared to help you win the game. Ask yourself this basic question: Will this response help get my paper published?
    Here is an example from my most difficult paper:
    2. The authors have been unwilling to deal with the basic remarks in my reports. To put things as briefly as I can, the authors have simply not dealt with [Matter X]. They have not treated this matter in the paper at all nor with sufficient attention in their responses to my question.
    Response. We have added a section to the APPENDIX that details [Matter X] [manuscript location: page a, paragraph b, line c].
    In fact, I was quite willing to address his remarks. I thought I had. I must admit that my first impulse was to tell this reviewer that he should have written more clearly what he thought because I can't read minds. My addition to the manuscript satisfied the reviewer.

When You're an Expert at the Game

As you gain experience at publishing, you will become more adept at responding to comments from reviewers. Keep in mind, however, that the game of publication is like any other game: It gets easier the more you play, but it can still drive you crazy. Regardless, as you become more expert, you are likely to truly enjoy the game of publication.