Tales from the other side of the fence

Feb 11 2011 Published by under Miscellaneous work stuff

It’s been a real learning experience being an associate editor for Middling Journal. I’ve learned to really rely on reviewers actually doing reviews that say something rather than just making banal and meaningless comments. If they do this, it also makes my life much easier because I just don’t have time to read all of the manuscripts from end to end. More to the point, I don’t understand any some of them.

But I’ve also discovered how difficult it can be to find people who will agree to review the manuscripts. And then getting them to actually submit a review can be even harder. Apparently I’m not allowed to threaten them with physical violence. Who knew?

And this experience has taught me a lot about being an author and about trying to publish my stuff. Like submitting a list of potential reviewers who aren’t my current collaborators, aren’t all from my current or former institutions and who actually have a clue about the topic covered in the manuscript. Oh, and about how to respond to reviews and/or rejections.

So, a couple of tips for dealing with journals and stuff ...

1. Don’t argue with the umpire
Editors and associate editors don’t like being told that they got it wrong when they rejected your manuscript. And if they are a good umpire, they won't change their mind. I certainly won't, regardless of how much you complain. Suck it up, revise the sucker and find another journal.

2. Don’t throw a tantrum
Sure, you can write to the editorial team complaining about the reviewers and blaming their ineptitude for your manuscript rejection. Just remember that the identities of the reviewers of your manuscripts are unknown to you. Don't use words like imbecile and ignorant. You may have suggested the reviewer(s). They may actually be a BigWig in the area. And they might know far, far more about your corner of science than you think you do.

3. Copy and paste
You know how to do that, right? Remember to copy the reviewers' comments verbatim when doing your revise and resubmit (assuming you were invited to do so). You want them and the editor to remember what the issues were with the original submission. Having to flick back and forth between screens and matching criticisms to rebuttals is only going to make everyone angry. And there's nothing worse than an angry editor and/or reviewer. Well, except for a crazy assistant professor who is ill but still frantically searching for her next bag of Doritos. But that's a whole other story.

4. Play by the rules
Come on. You’ve been at this game long enough to know that submitting the following response to the previous reviewers’ comments really isn’t a good idea: “(1) No. (2) We strongly disagree. (3) There is nothing wrong with the figure.” Reviewers like to have their egos stroked. Tell them how wise they are. Even if the next sentence is to show them how totally wrong they are. Do it nicely and back it up with evidence.

5. Tell your story and tell it well
Insisting that the reviewers completely misunderstood the main crux of your paper means that you didn’t write it very well in the first place. Did you understand that? Do I need to say it again in a different way? Your. Writing. Sucks.

Sigh. This part of the game really isn’t rocket science. I’m sure that several editors shook their fists at their computer screens when reading some of my stuff in the past. And probably continue to do it. I just don’t bother anymore. It’s much quicker and much more energy efficient to just hit the REJECT button. I have Teh Power.

14 responses so far

  • GEARS says:

    I sometimes get the feeling when I'm doing reviews that the authors have either never published before or they don't do reviews themselves. First thing I do is check the Scopus record/institution website to see if its some first year student so I can gauge my response. If its a new author, I tend to be a little more forgiving for the submission aspects but not the technical stuff. If they're a "seasoned author" and they submit a bunch of crap that's half written (and badly at that), all bets are off.

    If that's the case, I usually mention in the review that they clearly did not write this paper with the Reader in mind. As a reviewer, you're perfectly within your rights to explicitly say "this manuscript is technically correct yet unsuitable for submission in its current form. Fix X, Y, Z". And lazy responses like what PiT lists are a further reason to reject on principle alone. If you went far enough to write the stupid paper, you can take the time to expand your explanation a little bit...

  • Namnezia says:

    I hate the notion that people will reject something on principle alone. For the most part people will work very hard to prepare and submit a manuscript, and obviously harder to obtain the data. The reviewers job is to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the study and if the writing sucks to tell the authors to improve their writing. But rejecting a paper outright based on the fact that you don't like how it's written is not doing anybody any good. I always give the authors the benefit of the doubt.

  • Dan says:

    Editors and associate editors don’t like being told that they got it wrong when they rejected your manuscript. And if they are a good umpire, they won’t change their mind. I certainly won’t, regardless of how much you complain.

    Really? What if your reviewers got it wrong? I've had a paper rejected on the basis of a single reviewer who was factually incorrect in their assertions. Thankfully, my associate editor was willing to reconsider his decision when we explained (with citations) why the review was incorrect. Would you not do the same?

  • physioprof says:

    1. Don’t argue with the umpire
    Editors and associate editors don’t like being told that they got it wrong when they rejected your manuscript. And if they are a good umpire, they won’t change their mind. I certainly won’t, regardless of how much you complain. Suck it up, revise the sucker and find another journal.

    This may be true for Middling Journals, but is completely false for high-impact journals. You almost always have to advocate very extensively for the merits of your manuscript in order for it to be published, and the default response of these journals to even realtively encouraging reviews is to reject the manuscript, but to "invite" a resubmission if major revisions are made.

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    At first I was going to say that I can hardly believe half the things you said that authors do. Then after reading the comments above, I thought, "holy shit. authors really do this?" Guess that's my novice assistant professor viewpoint. I typically obey the rules, but everyone's comments makes me want to break em when gunning for the high impact journals. Wouldn't these things annoy editors to no end? Does that really matter in the long run though? I always like to stay on important people's good side.

  • Funny Researcher says:

    Sometimes a story told well is not read by the reviewers ?

  • Sometimes a story told well, is not read by the reviewers ?

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    All you've done is revealed to the manuscript-submitting masses that you can be placated with a King Size bag of Doritos. You must blog more discreetly from now on.

  • BLG says:

    I'd like to add an interesting one that I've encountered recently: When the reviewer says, "I don't understand what sentence X means," do not explain what it means in the resubmission cover letter without changing the manuscript. The reviewer is not asking for a personal lesson, they are trying to tell you that the sentence is not easily understood by a reader. Fix it!

  • anon says:

    I've been amazed at the level of pickiness reviewers have with the presentation without making any attempt at scrutinizing the science! Enough with the comma and hyphen copy-editing people! Who gives a flying fig whether I use 'measure' or 'demonstrate'!

    Also, I'd love to know what other people think is a reasonable time frame for returning reviews. I generally try to hit the editor's request (2 weeks turn around), with maybe a week's leeway. How long is waaaaay to long?

    • I’d love to know what other people think is a reasonable time frame for returning reviews. I generally try to hit the editor’s request (2 weeks turn around), with maybe a week’s leeway. How long is waaaaay to long?

      If you can't meet the deadline, email the editor and tell them. You can also ask for more time when you accept the assignment.

      IMHO, you don't want to piss the editor off by always being late with reviews as you might have a paper to submit at some point or be looking to be on the editorial board. And the editor might review one of your grants. Ummm ... all of these have happened to me anyway.

      • anon says:

        What is the typical deadline at the journal you're editing? Is there a formal policy? I've been experiencing some looong delays as an author and wonder what is standard around different areas. Most of the -ologists I know asked to review are given 2 weeks as a deadline , while theorists are saying people expect to take multiple months, which I find appalling. Self-interest aside, when does it become unethical (taking unfair advantage of others) to sit on your colleague's/competitor's manuscripts for an extensive amount of time?