How good (a manuscript) is good enough?

Image: © (claimed) Terrance Heath, CC BY-NC 2.0

“How good a manuscript”, I’m sometimes asked, “is good enough to submit”?  It’s a natural enough question.  A manuscript heading for peer review isn’t the finished product.  It’s virtually certain that reviewers will ask for changes, often very substantial ones – so why waste time perfecting material that’s going to end up in the wastebasket anyway?

I discuss this issue in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but I have to admit, not very convincingly.  My chapter on formal review opens this way:

“Once your manuscript is as polished as you (and your friendly reviewers) can make it, your next step it to submit it for potential publication”.

“As polished as you can make it” – while that might sound informative as long as you don’t think about it very hard, I’m afraid it’s actually closer to completely meaningless. It’s almost impossible to catch that very last typo. Am I implying six rounds of proofreading? Sixteen?  Two hundred and thirty-eight?  Do I mean that you should hire Barbara Kingsolver or Toni Morrison, at whatever budget that takes, to make your writing more elegant?  Of course not.  If you tried for literally “as polished as you can make it”, you’d trap yourself in an endless cycle of every-tinier revisions and never submit at all.  So I must have meant “as polished as you can reasonably make it”.  But what’s “reasonable”?

Well, this may not be what you want to hear (it isn’t what I, as an author, want to hear), but I’m going to argue for pretty darned polished*.  You see, that “wasted” effort in polishing text that may be discarded anyway is probably not wasted at all.  That polishing serves two functions, each distinct from the usual function of polishing text to make it clear to its final readers.  One function involves etiquette; the other, persuasion.

First, etiquette.  Reviewers are performing a valuable service for you, and it’s one you aren’t usually paying for**.  We sometimes lose sight of this, because it’s seductive to think of reviewers as gatekeepers, but their contributions to improving manuscripts are important and valuable.  Sending sloppy work is disrespectful: you shouldn’t ask a reviewer to find errors that you should have found yourself, or to read awkward or difficult text that you could have polished before submission.  If you like, you can think of this as just another instance of the Golden Rule: would you like the authors whose work you review to catch all the obvious typos before sending their work to you? Yeah, me too.

Now, persuasion. I don’t think we should obsess over the gatekeeping part of the reviewer’s job, but there’s no use pretending it isn’t real.  Errors or awkwardness in a manuscript – no matter how minor they might be – have effects on reviewers, and those effects aren’t ones that you want.  A reviewer might write something like “the fact that the text is riddled with typos makes me worry that the data were handled similarly carelessly”.  Or a reviewer might simply be driven to grumpiness, and let that grumpiness colour their evaluation of the manuscript.  Perhaps neither reaction is quite fair, but reviewers are human, and humans have both reactions.  I know I’ve caught myself having both.  A reviewer confronted with an unpolished manuscript is simply less likely to recommend its acceptance.

So how good is good enough?  I’m coming down to very polished although not necessarily perfect.  This, I realize, isn’t much clearer than “as polished as you can reasonably make it”.  But I’m not sure we can ever do much better.  Polishing effort has diminishing returns and trades off with all the other things we could be doing, so we can’t do it forever – but investing quite a bit of time in quite a bit of polish is worthwhile***.

The bottom line: if you’re tempted to run something sloppy through review on the grounds that “we can polish it later”, stop and ask yourself if you want to colour your interaction with reviewers that way. I think you’re better off not.

© Stephen Heard  August 17, 2017

*^If it isn’t what you want to hear, the rest of the post isn’t going to make you much happier.  If you’re on the fence, read on.  If you’re implacably opposed to hard work pre-submission, though, you might want to read something else instead.  How about this old post – it doesn’t get read much, but I still think it was pretty funny.

**^We often say that reviewers are unpaid, but that isn’t the same thing and I think is (usually) a misleading way to put it.  More about that in a future post.

***^With one huge glaring exception: time spent polishing reference formatting.  It drives me up the wall that journals dictate reference format at the submission stage.  Because a good fraction of papers submitted to any journal end up rejected and resubmitted elsewhere, time spent formatting references to journal specifications in advance of submission is truly time wasted.  As long as the references use some coherent format, it shouldn’t matter the tiniest little bit what that formatting is.  It shouldn’t even matter whether it’s completely consistent between papers in the reference list.  It’s been gratifying, recently, to see a few journals realize this, but it’s ridiculous that most still haven’t.




11 thoughts on “How good (a manuscript) is good enough?

  1. lambertmr

    Excellent piece on an important questions most researchers deal with!

    We briefly discussed on Twitter that coauthors can vary quite a bit in how they perceive a manuscript as “polished enough”. The point was made that there’s a difference between “polish” and more data/experiments. And part of the latter problem I suppose can deal with the least publishable unit and how easy it is in different fields to keep adding data and experiments.

    But outside of dealing with coauthors who want more work, coauthors can be anywhere on a spectrum of wanting to push manuscripts out ASAP, being laissez faire about whether it’s “enough”, or will drag their heels and nitpick every word or clause across never-ending drafts. A mixture of these coauthors on the same paper can be quite the process to deal with! I know early career folks generally have a hard time figuring out when a manuscript is polished enough, some rerunning analyses and changing the order of words in a sentence for months on end, really having no dramatic change to the manuscript. Trying to figure out when it’s good enough can become debilitating when there are coauthors who differ dramatically in their perceptions has been rough on some peers. I guess recognizing that different coauthors have different thoughts on the matter, and no one is necessarily correct, is good to keep in mind for early career folks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Indeed there are thorny questions here. The question of “one more analysis” to me is more about when the *science* is ready and less about when the *manuscript* is ready. At least, that’s my transparent excuse for avoiding that more-difficult-to-generalize question. As for coauthors: yes, coauthors differ in style and approach. One thing that happens is that over a career you accumulate coauthors you know you work well with. I agree that for the early career person, there can be some roadbumps when coauthors disagree (on polish and on other issues!). Which, I know, isn’t much help…


  2. Amy Parachnowitsch

    I especially like the respect part of getting your paper “good enough”. I like thinking of treating your reviewers with respect and sending them something that you’re proud of, even if they might also be gatekeepers. You certainly don’t want to knowingly send them something sloppy. I’m guessing some of my reviewers might come away with that impression of me anyway sometimes….thinking specifically now of my recent rejection, in part because one reviewer thought strongly we should have done X when we clearly state X as a motivation for the present study (published X in two other papers and cited). Sigh. But as always there are a lot of helpful bits in the reviews that will make this paper better in the end.


  3. Trish

    I would qualify the comment about references…we don’t require our format but they should be in *a* format. References that are incomplete and a scrambled mess do lead to the problem of persuasion–reviewers question what care the authors took with the data. In the era of reference management software it shouldn’t be a problem to have complete information in a consistent arrangement.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, good point, Trish – maybe my “even if they aren’t in a consistent format” goes too far. Consistent format, as you say, is easy to achieve. Although do I really care if, at submission stage, some of the journals are abbreviated and some are not? Is that really a reviewer-persuasion issue? I would definitely say that errors and incomplete references cast doubt on an author’s credibility but I’m not sure (for me) this extends to fine details of formatting.


  4. Chris Mebane

    For me, I’m usually making that judgment in a state of emotional exhaustion when I am so sick of the manuscript I can’t stand to read it, I read through missing words and kludgey sentences. I can’t wait to send it away for a month or two. It’s a recipe for trouble. Co-authors can be extremely helpful, or at noted above, exceedingly unhelpful. The helpful co-authors take the manuscript when the first author is sick of it, save a version, as the others to take a timeout so version control doesn’t become an issue, turn on Change Tracking, and have at it. Proofing, polishing, re-writing, re-arranging,  checking some data of the accompanying data repository or data SI. Remarks back to the first author are added as comments, never just typed in as text which can be missed and embarrassingly end up in the final, such as “Should we cite the crappy Gabor paper here?

    Those are the helpful co-authors. Unhelpful co-authors act like reviewers and give criticisms without actually polishing themselves.  “You should develop this point further,” “this section could be condensed,” “the writings kind of rough” or other unhelpful things. Co-authors are not just first reviewers, if they’re good they will polish themselves instead of just pointing out the lack of polish.  Those are the benignly unhelpful co-authors. Richard Primack’s great post over at Dynamic Ecology and previous writings describes some of the actively unhelpful things co-authors from hell can bring. May co-authors of that ilk find each other to collaborate with and leave the rest of us alone.


  5. Pingback: Look, Ma, I found a squirrel! | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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