The power of “thanks”

Image: Scrabble tiles by Wokandapix via, released to public domain.

Warning: a little saccharine.

My mother, no doubt like yours, was right about a lot of things (although she was wrong about some other things).  One thing she was really, really right about was the importance, and the power, of saying “thanks”.

I know, that seems trivial; but we sometimes forget.  This crossed my radar recently because I saw a tweet exhorting people to thank reviewers and editors (that is, members of journal editorial boards) who had worked, unpaid, with their manuscripts.  A reply* expressed surprise that journal editors might be unpaid (and therefore, implicitly, deserving of thanks).  I had several reactions to all this.

First: some people might think “why should I thank those power-wielding career-destroying gatekeeping mean people”?  I plead guilty to having this thought myself, occasionally and temporarily.  Every now and again a reviewer or an editor is a roadblock in your way.  It happens.  They make mistakes or misjudgements (who doesn’t?), they have bad days (who doesn’t?), they get frustrated and over-react to fixable problems (who doesn’t?).  But overall, reviewers and editors do us a huge service.  There’s an apparency problem: a bad review experience is great fodder for a water-cooler conversation or a scandalized tweet.  The much more common good reviewer experience isn’t fun to share, so we usually keep it to ourselves and forget about it.

Second: gosh yes, please thank your reviewers and editors.  It matters.  I spend a lot of time in those roles**, and I can tell you that a brief note of thanks from an author makes my day and makes me feel like my effort is worthwhile.  One of the interesting things about editorial service is that I have several times received notes of thanks from authors whose papers I’ve rejected.  Those ones really make my day, because they’re unexpected and I know they’re sincere.  Thank a reviewer or editor by email; thank them in person at a meeting; add their name to the Acknowledgements (if the journal permits).

Third: this is about more than just reviewers and editors.  Thank department Chairs, Deans, and so on; society officers and conference organizers; seminar speakers and those who arrange their visits; grant panelists; mentors, committee members, guest lecturers.  All these, and many more, are unpaid***.  Or perhaps more accurately, they’re doing those jobs because they choose to see them as part of their broader package of academic duties.

“Choose to see” – what’s with that?  Academic jobs are ill defined.  A lot of what matters happens not because someone is assigned a particular responsibility by a boss as part of their salaried work, but instead because people take on tasks that need doing and that suit their strengths and interests (or sometimes, despite the fact they don’t suit their interests).  The result is a complicated web of “volunteer” activity in which each of us depends on the unpaid (or only-indirectly-paid) and often unacknowledged work of many others.  It’s entirely possible to dodge most of this work (and we all know a dodger or two), but the system works because most of us understand what needs to happen, and find ways to derive satisfaction, if not explicit job credit, from contributing to it.

Why did I call this post the “power” of thanks?  Because this isn’t just a matter of politeness.  Gestures of appreciation help science, and scientists, move forward in at least three ways.  First, they encourage people to keep doing all those “volunteer” things that science needs.  Second, when made publicly, they make invisible work visible – raising awareness of, and likelihood of credit for, those tasks that otherwise run in the background.  Third, they feed back to benefit te people who offer them.  Think about it: if you could do a favour for someone who just graciously thanked you for something, or you could do a favour for someone who merely grunted at you in the hallway, which would you choose?  I thought so.  We’re all like that.

So yes, thank reviewers and editors.  And thank all kinds of other people too.  It costs exactly nothing to harness the power of “thanks”.

© Stephen Heard  August 9, 2017

*^Which I’ve lost track of, so I can apportion neither credit nor blame to its author.

**^I review only about a dozen manuscripts a year, but handle another 20 or so in my roles as Associate Editor for The American Naturalist and for FACETS.  (As usual, neither of these journals was consulted on this post or necessarily endorses anything I say here.)

***^OK, department Chairs and Deans often receive administrative stipends on top of their normal pay. I can assure you, from experience, that the stipend is nowhere close to the compensation for what they put into the job.

9 thoughts on “The power of “thanks”

  1. amlees

    There are so many types of editor, that it might help to define what kind you are talking about when you say ‘unpaid editors’. (I’m a copy-editor and I get paid.)


  2. jpschimel

    Is this work truly “unpaid” or is the term you use “Indirectly Paid” perhaps more accurate. At the University of California, every several years, I go through a merit review cycle. While scholarly publications drive those, professional activity is part of the package. If I do well, my salary may may go up more than a single step (an “acceleration”). Doing review and editorial service strengthens your professional standing and so feeds into tenure and promotion letters and so also may lead to financial reward down the line. So there are long-term and indirect rewards. But as you point out, the greatest reward is having an academic “ecosystem” to work and thrive in. We all depend on these systems to function so we all have to take our turns doing them. When we don’t, we all suffer.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Josh – you are entirely right, and I actually have a post half-written laying this out (I need to finish it!). In other systems (like mine), there’s no direct pay implication, but it’s nonetheless I think a part of the overall job. I will finish up that post soon!


  3. Pavel Dodonov

    Excellent points! But what really surprised me was to see the words “I review”, “about a dozen manuscripts a year”, and “only” in the same sentence. This is about the number of manuscipts I’ve been reviewing (for lack of more invitations – I’m willing to review more!), and I’m feeling kinda overwhelmed already.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      My numbers have gone up and down over the years. I’ve done fewer when I’m more adminstratively committed (like now), and more in years when I have less going on. Not sure where I fall in the distribution!


  4. Pingback: Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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