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.