Some people ignore the Acknowledgements sections of papers, but they’re one of my favourite bits. Not because they have much to do with telling the paper’s story – they don’t – but because they can reward a reader with the kind of writing style, personality, and humour that’s otherwise in short supply in our scientific writing. My favourite Acknowledgements section of all time, though, isn’t one that’s particularly funny or beautiful. Instead, it’s one that makes a very profound point about the value of criticism. Here it is, in its entirety:
For critical suggestions and discussion I thank [names]. Not everyone agreed with everything but even that helped (West-Eberhard 2014).
This is something I didn’t understand, early in my career: feedback on a manuscript helps the most when it comes from people who don’t agree with you. (Or from those who don’t agree with what you’ve written, which is not always the same thing; criticism is a great way to discover that what you thought you’d written doesn’t actually appear on the paper.) I hated seeing red pencil on my manuscripts, and I especially hated seeing lengthy reviews come back on papers I’d submitted.
Dreading criticism is a huge mistake, of course. It can be tempting to send your manuscripts to a colleague who will correct your spelling and grammar while saying only good things about the bones of your manuscript, but what you should really want is a colleague who’ll be genuinely critical, willing to raise issues requiring hard work of you as the author. Such criticism is an invaluable source of writing help – even, perhaps especially, when it comes from people who don’t agree with what you’ve written. If this seems obvious to you, that’s great – you’ve taken a step that took me quite a while.
The value of criticism is particularly easy to forget when it comes from peer reviewers and journal editors, because these people play two roles when they’re dealing with your manuscript. They’re providing advice on how to improve your manuscript, but they’re also acting as gatekeepers, allowing or preventing the publication you’re seeking. It’s a common and natural mistake to focus on the gatekeeping role, and forget about the manuscript-improvement role. And not just for scientists: the vampire novelist Anne Rice once read a reader’s suggestion online that one of her novels had needed an editor’s hand. She responded:
I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.
Despite Rice’s self-confidence, the brilliance of her unedited prose has not yet been recognized by a Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither has my own prose, of course, and it never will, but it’s been hugely improved by an army of reviewers and editors.
There’s one more point one can draw from my favourite Acknowledgements section: a lesson for how to be a good reviewer. When you criticize a manuscript, you needn’t hold back (although you should of course always be polite and constructive*). However, you should criticize not to justify rejection, but to drive improvement. (Sure, a rejection might result; but if it does, your criticism can help the author submit a stronger revision to a new journal.) Your goal as a reviewer should be to wind up in an Acknowledgements section like West-Eberhard’s – one in which the author includes you in thanks that are more than just the formality of “We are grateful to 3 anonymous reviewers for comments”. I’m proud to have pulled this off a few times; it’s one way I can repay the debt I owe to my own reviewers.
© Stephen Heard (email@example.com) February 15, 2016
- Do scientists want beauty? – or, why is our literature (mostly) so tedious?
- The dumbest thing I ever said to a reviewer
- The dumbest thing I ever wrote to an editor
- Are peer reviewers crazy, or saints?
This post is based in part on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.
*^It’s true that some reviewers don’t understand this. I once submitted a manuscript reporting some limited but (I think) interesting natural-history data. One reviewer wrote, anonymously, that they wouldn’t have given my manuscript a passing grade in their undergraduate Introduction to Ecology course. Nothing more – they didn’t explain what they thought was wrong, or how they thought it might be improved! The editor should never even have passed this “review” on to me; but fortunately, I was too stubborn to give up, and I sent the manuscript to another (better) journal. It was accepted with a few minor revisions, and now I have a funny story to put in a footnote.