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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) May 18, 2015
*I think it was the Discussion, but I could be wrong. It was, after all, mumble-mumble years ago.