An American Editor

April 7, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 1

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:18 pm
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Geoffrey Hart

[This article is a revised and expanded version of a November 2005 guest lecture I gave to Dr. Saul Carliner’s graduate seminar in instructional design at Concordia University.]

Many clients and potential clients are writing academic papers that must undergo the Darwinian struggle known as peer review. The purpose of this struggle is to select only the fittest papers by improving the quality of the information. Academics being civilized beings, this doesn’t inevitably have to be “nature, red in tooth and claw,” but when the review is done well, reviewers provide insightful, focused critiques that help authors compete more strongly in the community of knowledge by improving the quality and clarity of their message.

Of course, academics being human, some reviewers see themselves as wolves, not helpers, and see their role as running behind the pack so they can pull down the slowest and weakest. They then scatter the bones of their victims upon the ground for all to see as a literary kind of memento mori.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Overstretched metaphors notwithstanding, academic discourse benefits greatly from peer review because the peer reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the author’s field, and most recognize that publishing is a collaborative effort in which everyone agrees on the same goals: to maximize the quality of knowledge that gets published and to improve the conversation. Quality is the first goal, both because of how important the published literature should be for guiding practitioners and future authors by providing a body of knowledge that enriches an entire field of study. The second goal is to make authors look good in print, which means helping them communicate their key ideas concisely and clearly. Third, and less-often mentioned, is the “they did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you” school of review — I’ve heard PhD thesis supervisors admit, off the record, that their supervisor made them rewrite their thesis 10 times even after it was long ready to publish, and that they were going to demand the same suffering of their grad students. Sadly, many carry this philosophy to the task of peer review.

There are many ways the peer review process can fail, including authors who recommend peer reviewers who owe them a favor and will give a favorable review, even if it’s not justified, or who promote papers that support their particular biases. On the whole, though, most participants take the process seriously and work hard and with integrity to help authors publish manuscripts they can be proud of.

You may have noted that most of what I’ve described sounds very similar to what editors do, so why do we need editors when we have peer review? (Alternatively, why do we need peer reviewers when we have editors?) There are three main reasons.

First, peer reviewers are unpaid volunteers, and it’s a poor and disrespectful use of their time to send them unclear, error-ridden manuscripts. Second, unless the manuscript is about editing, the reviewers are rarely editors, and therefore aren’t best suited to the job of editing a manuscript for clarity, even if they had the time — and most don’t. Third, eliminating all the many infelicities to which a text is prone makes it easier for reviewers to understand the author’s key points and identify subtle flaws that should be fixed, but that (without editing) might be invisible beneath a sea of typos, false cognates, and other problems.

That being said, how can editors help authors prepare their manuscripts for peer review?

Note: The approach described in this article works equally well for journal articles, monographs (e.g., a report series
published by a research institute), and books.

The review process

Writing for peer review begins with an understanding of the peer-review process. Fortunately, this is more similar to than different from other forms of nonfiction writing. The process generally follows these steps:

· The author completes their research, whether in a laboratory or a library, and analyzes the knowledge they acquired to create an overall mental image of their findings and where these fit within the larger context of a field’s collection of knowledge. Developmental editing can be very helpful at this stage.

· Based on this review of their subject, the author creates a strong outline to guide their writing (Hart, 2021). Again, developmental editing can facilitate this stage.

· Next, the author must choose an appropriate publisher — one that will be interested in the manuscript and will provide access to an interested audience. Based on that publisher’s requirements (usually made available via their website), the author writes a first draft that follows those guidelines. If the publisher lets authors develop their own style guide, developmental editing can produce a guide that eases the task of writing consistently.

· With help from colleagues and (ideally) a substantive editor, the author revises the manuscript to produce the most-polished story they can before they submit it to the publisher.

· The publisher hands off the manuscript to one or more peer reviewers. After some time has passed (often months), the author receives the review comments and the publisher’s verdict, and must then revise the manuscript to answer any questions or address any criticisms raised by the reviewers. Substantive editing and copyediting are often required at this stage.

· The author repeats the revise/resubmit/review cycle as often as necessary, with an editor’s help, until they either satisfy the publisher that their manuscript is worthy of publication, or they give up and send it to another publisher (where the whole process might start over again!).

Choosing the right publisher

Deciding where to publish a manuscript is a complicated task, since there are many criteria, some of which are contradictory or very subjective.

Publishing in a prestigious journal or with a prestigious academic press is important for an academic’s career because the publisher’s prestige is one criterion for evaluating an author’s work. The downside of prestigious publishers is that everyone wants to publish with them, which gives the publisher enormous freedom in choosing only the best of the best submissions. It’s not quite the writer’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, but the chances of success sometimes seem equally low. A less-prestigious but still perfectly respectable publisher may be a better option, particularly for authors who are still early in their careers and don’t yet have name recognition that would get them through doors that are shut to new authors.

Another decision is whether the author should write for their peers, which usually means a smaller but more-expert audience, or for a wider group of readers who are outside the author’s area of specialization, which usually means a larger but less-expert audience. The former may be important when an author is trying to make a name for themselves in their field; the latter may be more important when they have something to say that will be of broad interest to readers both in their field and out.

Note: Academics face an interesting challenge: Their work may be very important for the general public, but publishing general-interest manuscripts gains little respect from colleagues, and sometimes gains their contempt. One solution is to publish first in academic publications, and then recast that work for a broader audience later.

Editors who specialize in certain areas gradually acquire a sense of which publishers are a good choice. If, however, you (as an editor) are unfamiliar with a field, there are tricks you can use to help the author find a suitable publisher. First, examine the bibliography in the manuscript. If the author repeatedly cites papers from a specific journal or books from a specific publisher, than that journal or publisher is likely to be a good candidate because these citations prove the willingness of those outlets to publish similar manuscripts.

On the other hand, the lack of a specific publisher, such as a science journal, in the list of citations may be a sign that the author’s subject has not been published by that journal even though its readers would clearly benefit from learning more about that subject. Another way editors can help authors is by helping them argue for the relevance of a manuscript by explaining (in a cover letter) how it will benefit the publication’s readers.

Neither author nor editors should hesitate to ask colleagues for suggestions, both for publishers they’ve worked with and that have been helpful and have provided effective reviews — and publishers that are best avoided. Many publishers, and particularly peer-reviewed journals, report their rejection ratio at their author guidelines web pages. If they have a high-impact factor (i.e., if many of their publications are cited by other authors), they’ll report that prominently, too.

Publishers with the highest impact factors tend to have the highest rejection rates, so choosing a balance between impact and risk of rejection is important. This is a judgment call and a deeply personal decision, and editors can provide advice on the pros and cons of a given publisher, but in the end, the author must choose.

Note: Chapter 3 of my book Writing for Science Journals (http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm) provides a detailed discussion of this subject.

Style guides

Most academic or scholarly publishers receive more manuscripts than they can ever hope to publish, and as a result, they use a variety of screening criteria (some that are not so good) to eliminate the least-suitable manuscripts. One of the first and easiest is to check whether an author followed their style guide. An author who can’t be trusted to follow a simple, clearly stated set of instructions suggests the author will be more trouble to work with than the publisher desires. (That being said, having worked for more than 30 years in academic publishing, “simple” often strikes me as a one-word oxymoron.)

At a minimum, this suggests that the publisher will have to spend more of their tight budget on copyediting the manuscript than they would with an author who takes more care. Thus, editors should start first with the publisher’s stated style guide, then expand to other style resources if necessary. If the publisher doesn’t have a style guide, then — as I noted earlier — editors can help authors create a customized style guide during the developmental editing phase.

Note: Chapter 8 of my book Effective Onscreen Editing (http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm) discusses how to create and use style sheets in considerable detail.

Each field tends to have a core set of style guides. For example, academic fields outside the sciences tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style; the sciences tend to use the Council of Science Editors style guide, Scientific Style and Format. There are likely to be more-specialized guides for specific disciplines, such as the APA Style Guide for psychologists or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists. Learn which guides are most often used in a field, and use them to guide your editing. If you can’t find a sufficiently subject-specific guide, Google is your friend. Many professional associations publish their own official style guides for members, or provide recommendations of reputable guides produced by others.

Last but not least, always read an example of something published by the publisher. Whatever the stated preferences in their style guide, publishers tend to slowly diverge from their published guidelines. This may be because their acquiring or managing editors choose to follow a different authority (including their own preference), but neglect to inform their website manager that the guidelines should be updated. Unless the published guidelines have a current date and specifically supersede older guidelines, the proof of the pudding’s in the most-recent publication.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com) (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories thus far.    

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