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.