Should peer reviewers comment on writing style?

There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Definitely not.

I think the idea that reviewers shouldn’t influence style arises from a common misunderstanding about peer review: that its point is to detect and prevent publication of “bad” science, and nothing more. That is, to be sure, one function of peer review: to help editors decide which papers to accept, and which to reject. But there’s another function of peer review, too: to help authors communicate better with readers. This manuscript-improvement function is arguably more important to science than the gatekeeping one, given that nearly every manuscript eventually gets published somewhere! And style is definitely a tool that writers use to communicate better with readers. Some manuscripts are more engaging than others; some are easier to read than others. I’d certainly like my own manuscripts to be in the “more engaging” and “easier to read” piles, and I value thoughtful feedback from reviewers to help me achieve that.

You many have noticed the word “thoughtful” in that last bit. Can reviewers make suggestions about style that aren’t helpful? Absolutely. We’ve all encountered the old codger (usually) who can’t let go of 1970s writing style and insists that you shouldn’t use the active voice in a scientific paper.* Reviewers can be wrong about style just as they can be wrong about substance, and the path for authors is exactly the same. You don’t have to do everything a reviewer suggests** – you just need to justify your choice. When a reviewer makes suggestions about writing style, you should consider their case, and weigh it against your own. If you can explain – with reasoning and hopefully with evidence or at least support from writing authorities – why you prefer not to adopt a reviewer’s suggestion on style, then a good editor will consider the matter resolved. If you can’t do that, perhaps the reviewer isn’t wrong!  I’d argue that thinking of style as entirely a personal decision of a writer sort of misses the point. If my personal decisions make my manuscript more difficult or less convincing for readers, that’s absolutely something I’d like to know, so I can make different ones.

Of course, I reserve the right to delete this post and pretend it never happened, the next time a reviewer questions one of my absolutely hilarious jokes. Really, I slay myself sometimes.

© Stephen Heard  November 23, 2021

Image: Not the kind of style I’m really aiming for. With apologies to the memory of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel Paul Clifford is surely still better written than most of our literature.


*^Partly, this kind of thing happens because scientists tend to have strong but uninformed opinions about matters of style (see, e.g., full stop, one space after). Of course, I have some strong opinions about style, too, many of which are on record in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I will insist that I tried hard to support those opinions with evidence from the study of rhetoric. It was not always easy; some of these issues simply aren’t well studied.

**^Sometimes, of course, you can’t, because two reviewers will tell you conflicting things. Some early-career authors find this frustrating, but I love it, because it means you can, in the end, do whatever you want.

 

6 thoughts on “Should peer reviewers comment on writing style?

  1. Pavel Dodonov

    Once a reviewer asked me to change to passive voice, so I looked at all the papers in the latest issue of a high-profile journal and responded that in this journal all the latest papers except for one or two use the active voice 🙂
    I also totally agree with your points here, and I like what Neil Gaiman said about writing*: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” I think this applies perfectly to reviewers.
    * https://www.themarginalian.org/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
  2. Peter Apps

    Nearly every ms I get to review prompts me to criticise its convoluted, wordy, ponderously academic writing style.

    On a slightly tangential line, is it the job of reviewers to copy edit and proof read if they don’t like the way an ms is written?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. taxanama

    Has anyone ever questioned the peer-review process? The majority of scientists I encountered, and of course my data is very biased, worship the peer-review and see it as a flawless process. These are the people who were born and raised here. However, when I talk to colleagues from minority backgrounds, they tend to see the peer-review as a very flawed process, full of prejudice and abuse of power. Again, these are my observations, and my sample size is very, very small. Of course, I can’t entirely agree with either group. But I do find it interesting.
    I think our worldview as a person also affects how we perceive things as professionals.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  4. Chris Mebane

    First off, I think your dark and stormy methods description is definitely needed amongst that panoply of solid, stolid, stodgy scientific literature that no one can stomach to read word for word. Give it a purple prose poke. C’mon, to be in the company of Snoopy and Joni Mitchell? One can aspire. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_was_a_dark_and_stormy_night)?

    However, in methods sometimes what was done is more important than who done it. Thus, an emphasis on what over who. And a passive voice sometimes works fine for that. As you point out, a mix of active and passive voice can work. I just don’t like starting every sentence with I. Aye? Or we did this or we did that or we did these other things in the wee wee hours. Oui?

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  5. Gretchen Rasch

    As a science editor, I always comment on style and have been pushing for plain English in our organisation’s work. To see how we measure up, I entered a portfolio in New Zealand’s Plain English awards (https://www.plainenglishawards.org.nz/2021-awards-finalists-and-winners/). We lost out to some lawyers, but at least we made the finals! New Zealand has a bill before Parliament to require plain English in all government documents; I think as people become more aware of this issue there will be greater pressure on scientists to follow suit.

    Like

    Reply

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.