The dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer

Last month I told you about the dumbest thing I ever said to an editor. It would be great if that had run me out of embarrassing stories, but actually, that’s a pretty deep well. Today: the dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer. Mind you, at the time I didn’t realize that I was saying it to a reviewer, and I’ll say more about that; but first, the embarrassing story.

Here’s what happened. I was finishing up my PhD and submitting manuscripts from my thesis for publication. One of those manuscripts came back with reviews that included some positive comments, some criticism, and one comment that really got me riled up. One reviewer didn’t like the organization of my Discussion*, and wrote “This part of the paper seems sloppily written”. I read that, picked out a minor misstatement by the reviewer, and quickly sketched out a response that included the zinger “The reviewer thinks the Discussion is sloppily written. I might say the same of the review”. I attached that response to a lightly revised manuscript and resubmitted it, feeling very clever about my reply.

Now, you’re probably smarter than I was, and thus well aware that feeling clever is often a strong indication that you aren’t. After all, reviewers, not just editors, usually read the Response to Reviews, and my clever zinger wasn’t likely to dispose the reviewer favourably to my revision!   Besides, the reviewer was right (even if I was too mad to see that at the time).

So why did I do this dumb, dumb thing? Well, it could be I’m just a really obnoxious person.  I prefer to think, though, that I was inexperienced, and that there were at least four important things I hadn’t yet learned about the review and publication process:

    • First, it’s fine to read through a set of reviews as soon as you get them (as I did), but your next step should be to do nothing at all, for at least a couple of days. Don’t start revising the manuscript, and under no circumstances ever start composing a reply! It’s only natural to resent criticism, no matter how well founded and no matter how helpful. Only by putting it aside for a while can you get the perspective you need to see how that criticism can help you improve your manuscript.
    • Second, the original reviewers are very likely to see your revised manuscript, along with your response letter. Yes, if the revisions are very minor, then probably – but not necessarily – the editor will act without further review; but you should never assume that’s the case. Therefore, write respectfully about the reviews (and especially about the reviewers). You can disagree, of course; but think carefully before you do so, do it politely and constructively, and thank the reviewers for their comments.  (There’s a whole chapter in my writing book about this.)
    • Third, it’s easy to think that reviewers are just a bar over which you are being asked to jump, with the editor judging your leap. You can slip into thinking this way if you focus too much on reviewers’ gatekeeping role, and not enough on their simultaneous manuscript-improvement role. Yes, they do play both roles – the gatekeeping is real, as the reviewers will recommend that an editor accept or reject your manuscript. But to an author, it’s the manuscript-improvement role that matters. The reviews will help you improve the manuscript so that when it’s published (if not in this journal, then elsewhere) it can have as much impact on your field as it possibly can. My “sloppily written” reviewer could maybe have phrased the criticism a little better, but ultimately the point wasn’t to cut me down – it was to raise me up by showing me which part of my manuscript could be improved by some careful editing. I bristled when I should have been grateful.
  • Fourth, reviewers are people just like you and me (frequently, they are you and me). That means they’re human, with all the imperfection that entails. If their tone is a little off, cut them some slack: they’re labouring on your behalf without any pay or (often) much thanks, they’re at least as busy as you are, and like everybody else they occasionally misstep.

As I say, I didn’t know these things back then. I do now. So, if parts of this post seem “sloppily written”, go ahead and tell me so in the Comments. I promise I’ll pause before replying, and I promise I’ll take it as the constructive criticism it will no doubt be. And perhaps hearing about the dumbest thing I wrote to a reviewer will save you from a similar blunder of your own.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) May 18, 2015


*I think it was the Discussion, but I could be wrong. It was, after all, mumble-mumble years ago.

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21 thoughts on “The dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer

  1. Michael James

    Every field is different, but in mine, reviews that go back to authors are generally the collective thoughts of at least 3 reviewers and an editor. Reviewers write their reviews independently, but they get a chance to modify them in light of the thoughts of the other reviewers (who often comment directly on each others’ reviews). This usually means that if they make a mistake, multiple people made the same mistake. And this mistake is likely to be made by other readers unless the authors improve the clarity of the submission. The question I used to ask myself as an author is how can I change my paper to make sure that readers won’t make this mistake in their understanding of my paper again.

    As a reviewer, the better I like a paper, the more comments I tend to make. Very bad papers get one explanation of why the core idea is completely wrong. Merely bad papers get about 3 comments of the top reasons why the paper is bad. Good papers get many suggestions for improvements (mostly minor points). I once got a snotty reply from the author of a good paper where I had pointed out several typos. The reply pointed out that my review had a typo. This author had no idea about my role in helping improve the work.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      The system you describe is still unusual in ecology and evolution. While as an editor I would worry about it being cumbersome, as an author I’d love it – and as a reviewer, it would have saved my bacon in the case I described!
      I agree 100% about “how I can change my paper to make sure readers won’t make this mistake again”. Even the most ill-formed reviewer comment can be of great use to an author who has figured this out!

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  2. Brian McGill

    Critical reviews definitely get easier to handle (and see as constructive) over time. On your first ever ms it feels like an attack on your self worth. Which is why your advice on putting aside for a while is really important

    I always find it helpful to recall that a reviewer is a volunteer who has just spent a good chunk of time (often many hours) helping me get my ms published at no benefit to them.

    Its a rather more helpful (and accurate) view then seeing the reviewer as a know it all, pretentious gatekeeper standing in my way which I think is a natural naive, early career view of reviewers.

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  3. Ezequiel Nicolazzi (@KATAphone)

    I would love to know how the reviewer reacted, but I’m afraid I know that already! Great post by the way! I loved the advise: “Don’t start revising the manuscript, and under no circumstances ever start composing a reply!” – I don’t do it anymore, but I admit I did it in the past… only to delete the whole thing a few days after. Thankfully, never sending that stuff away!

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  4. Mitch McGill

    I think young students submitting their first manuscripts rarely have any experience as reviewers, so they don’t understand that the people who review their submissions are busy folks who kindly donate their time (although I would argue that you’re obligated to review if you are trying to publish papers yourself, so it’s really more a payment than donation – but it’s still a time-consuming activity that you technically don’t have to do). My perspective on it certainly changed in that respect when I started to get review requests on a regular basis. On the other hand, as an experienced reviewer myself now, I also get more angry than before when a particularly obnoxious reviewer can’t be bothered to frame his/her comments on my work in a constructive way and is clearly just raging. I know from my own experience that it’s not that difficult to ensure that your criticisms are worded in a way that is helpful rather than hateful.

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