An American Editor

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

For Part 1, go to

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

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November 25, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining [ESL] clients, Part 1

Geoff Hart, Contributing Columnist

Editor’s notes: It is an honor and a pleasure to add Geoff Hart to the ranks of An American Editor columnists. We hope you enjoy this expanded and improved version of the author’s presentation at Communication Central’s 2016 Be a Better Freelancer® conference, Rochester, NY.

Where the author has indicated Note, the text should be a indented or block text, but your An American Editor owner hasn’t figured out how to do that yet in a new version of the WordPress editing function.

Resources will be included in Part 3 of this column.

For those interested in Geoff’s book (see author bio at end of column), Lulu.com offers 30% off all books with code BFCM30 from midnight November 27 through November 30 (presumably midnight North American Eastern Standard Time).

***

For the past 33 years, I’ve been working as a scientific editor. My specialty is working with authors who have English as a second language. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to these authors as “ESL” authors hereafter.) As you can imagine, this leads to challenges I don’t encounter with my authors who speak English as their native language. Challenges that, on the whole, I enjoy. In this series, I’ll tell you a bit about why I enjoy the work so much and how you can find, work with, and retain ESL clients. I’ve placed brackets around “ESL” in the title because, as you’ll see, much of what I’ll discuss is also true for non-ESL clients, with a slightly different spin.

Why you should work with ESL clients

When I started my freelance career, I continued working with scientific researchers, but decided to emphasize authors who learned English as their second (or more) language. In addition to seeing this as an under-exploited niche, I decided that I wanted to broaden my perspective beyond what I’d been learning from my western authors. Specifically, I focused on Japanese and Chinese authors, because these were two cultures I was somewhat familiar with and very much enjoyed. The resulting diversity of topics and concerns has proven every bit as rewarding as I’d hoped. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chance to learn more about other countries and cultures. In one case, expressing this interest even resulted in a short teaching gig at a Beijing university and offers of a longer-term teaching position when I’m retired and can afford to spend multiple months living abroad.

As an ecologist by training, I benefited from another lesson: Diverse ecosystems are most robust, and tend to be most stable. Translated into editing terms, adding Asian clients meant that my workload was potentially recession-proof (like an ecosystem or a diversified stock portfolio) because economic downturns in Asia usually differ in timing and intensity from western downturns. In addition, authors in different countries tend to have different busy periods, and this helps to spread out the work somewhat. For example, the school year (for university authors) differs among countries, as do the teaching and writing responsibilities that university professors have to fit into their busy schedules. Because most of my clients work outdoors, at locations ranging from forests to deserts, their field research seasons differ between hemispheres (e.g., summer in the south is winter in the north). I still have “crunch” periods when it seems that all my authors need my help simultaneously, but the reduced number of slow periods with no work more than compensates.

As a freelancer, it also didn’t escape my notice that higher pay rates are possible in some areas of the world. For example, costs are higher in parts of the European Union and in Japan than they are in North America. For simplicity, I use a standard rate for all my clients (but with a discount for my Chinese clients, due to their smaller incomes and budgets), but if you’re more economically astute than I am and tailor your rate to each market you work in, you may have the option of raising your rate as high as each individual market will bear.

How to find ESL clients

There are as many ways to find clients as there are editors. I’ve listed several in my article on “finding work in tough times” (Hart 2006). I started by defining the authors I most wanted to work with (ESL authors). Once I knew who I wanted to work with, I contacted the editors of hundreds of peer-reviewed science journals that published articles in the areas of research I understood well enough to do substantive editing. I started with a form letter, in which I explained what I proposed:

•       I would work directly with authors, eliminating the burden on the journal’s staff.

•       I would help the author produce manuscripts sufficiently clear that the editor knew whether they were ready for peer review, and sufficiently good that it was worthwhile sending them for review.

•       I would ease the burden both on peer reviewers and on the journal’s editorial staff.

•       There would be no cost whatsoever to the journal; all they had to do was send my brochure (a concise PDF file I provided) to authors who needed my help.

That is, I focused on the problems experienced by journal editors that I could solve for them, not on why I was a good editor. To support this proposal, I explained the skills I offered (training as a scientist and many years of work with ESL authors) — but this supported my proposal (“let me solve your problems”) and was not the key to my proposal. The key was that I focused on the needs of my clients, a philosophy I’ve emphasized throughout my career. I quickly began receiving inquiries from Asian authors.

(The rest of this article focuses on examples from my Chinese authors, since they represent the majority of my clients, and the cultural differences from western authors are most revealing.)

Another approach is to start with the languages you speak. I speak French fairly fluently, and have worked for years with French authors, but I wanted to broaden my search to other languages, so I learned enough Mandarin and Japanese that I can at least greet authors politely in those languages, even if I can’t carry on a conversation in either language. Wanting an excuse to learn more of both languages and more about both cultures gave me a strong incentive to do so, and that desire was very much appreciated by my authors as they came to know me.

Although this suggests that you should think across borders and oceans when you look for ESL clients, the high mobility of modern writers suggests that you should also think locally. For example, universities, research institutes, and think tanks often employ authors from other countries. Attending international, national, or local conferences that focus on the subject you want to work on is another way to meet authors — these authors often need help from an English editor who can communicate well with them, possibly even in their own language.

To meet non-researcher authors, look for social groups such as the cultural societies that host events (e.g., Chinese new year, Diwali) or business associations (such as the Pan-Asian American Business Council). Meeting people in these groups is pleasant for its own sake, but also offers ways to find future clients. But avoid the mistake of only attending to seek clients; people will recognize this kind of mercenary behavior and turn away from you.

Note: If you want to work with graduate students at a university, carefully confirm with the university’s graduate studies department whether any regulations limit the nature of your work. For example, a PhD thesis must be an original work of scholarship, and some universities interpret this to mean that no developmental or substantive editing is allowed. In such cases, all you can do without obtaining a written exception to that rule is to offer proofreading and formatting services. A student’s failure to follow the university’s rules scrupulously can lead to a thesis being rejected. When in doubt, ask the university to respond in writing so you have proof of your permission to proceed.

In addition, leverage your network by asking your colleagues about opportunities. I exchange work opportunities with half a dozen colleagues. When I have work I can’t do, whether due to lack of expertise or lack of time, I refer the inquiries to those colleagues. In return, they refer some authors they can’t handle to me. I don’t charge a fee for such referrals; I treat it as a purely pro bono thing, which I can afford to do because I have far more work than I can handle and a good income. I do have colleagues who ask for a “finder’s fee” for such referrals, and that’s perfectly legitimate if you prefer to work that way.

How to work with ESL clients

Working with ESL authors is mostly similar to working with native-English authors, but a few quirks are worth mentioning.

Clear communication

Clear communication is important for any author­–editor relationship, but it’s particularly important when you work with ESL authors. First and foremost, self-edit your written communications ruthlessly. Don’t assume your meaning is clear. You’ll find that people who are communicating with you in their second language have much higher expertise in the language of their subjects than in the daily conversational language that relates to bread and butter issues such as specifying deadlines and contract terms for working together.

Although some editors communicate extensively with their ESL authors using online meeting software such as Zoom, particularly in these pandemic days, I find that most of my authors aren’t sufficiently comfortable with spoken English to enjoy this approach. Thus, almost all of our communication is via e-mail. To ensure that messages reach their target, I maintain two backup e-mail addresses in addition to the address provided by my service provider: the address associated with my website and a Gmail address. If one address is blocked or the service is temporarily unavailable, I can use the other addresses. For example, my service provider is often blocked by government and university networks because of their cavalier attitude toward spam. For many of this group of authors, I know I can’t use my main address. Similarly, ask your authors whether they have a second address you can use if necessary. If you don’t receive a reply within a day of sending an e-mail, try again using their second address. For particularly unreliable e-mail systems, send your message to both addresses at the same time, since it’s unlikely that both will be unavailable simultaneously.

Note: Carefully check your e-mail provider’s terms of service. For example, Google analyzes and indexes all Gmail messages, which means Gmail is inappropriate for messages that contain files that describe research breakthroughs, patent applications, and other confidential information. Most e-mail providers don’t encrypt their e-mail in any way, so e-mail can be read by anyone who gains access to their account. For e-mail that must be protected against prying eyes, consider using ProtonMail (https://protonmail.com/).

Reply as fast as possible (ideally, immediately!) to queries. Remember: If you’re working with authors on the other side of the world, the time zone difference means there can be a delay of up to 12 hours before they receive your reply, and this time can be critical for authors who are working under a tight deadline. Don’t assume your message was received. Always ask authors to confirm reception of your e-mail by explicitly requesting confirmation (e.g., “please confirm that you received both files with no problems”) or by asking a question they’ll have to answer (e.g., “which of your two addresses should I use on the invoice?”). Resend your message and any attached files if you receive no reply within about a day. It’s better to “spam” an author than to make them miss a deadline because you incorrectly assumed they received a file that you sent them.

Note: When you negotiate schedules, carefully account for time zone differences (http://www.worldtimeserver.com/). For example, I use language such as “I will return your paper on [date], eastern Canada (Montreal) time.”

Retain copies of all correspondence, in case you need to return to an earlier message to clarify some point. Disk space is cheap, particularly if you use an online e-mail service like Gmail. Although you can leave all your messages in your mail software, I prefer to copy them into a correspondence file in Microsoft Word for each author. This collects the information in one place, the search functions are generally superior, and it’s easier to move the text to other programs if necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer storing e-mail as e-mail, consider configuring your e-mail software to use the IMAP protocol (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Message_Access_Protocol), which leaves your e-mail on the service provider’s servers so that you can access it from all of your computing devices (e.g., your smartphone in addition to your laptop computer).

Until you’ve worked with an author long enough to know their needs, don’t assume you understand those needs. Learn the difference between what they want (e.g., “I need the edited manuscript Friday”) and what they really need (e.g., “but I’m not going to work on it before Monday, so Monday is probably fine”). Make these needs explicit rather than guessing. Back when I was a wage slave, I always asked each author when they wanted the manuscript and when they really needed it; the two dates were rarely the same.

For an ESL author, spend some time learning how they want to work with you; this may not be “the western way.” Some will just want you to tell them what to change; others want to understand why you recommend changes and to work with you to discuss all changes. Learn their busy periods (e.g., the date range for the school term vs. the summer research period, annual conferences they try to attend, national holidays). Add notes to your calendar, well in advance, to warn you that these periods are coming so you can plan your schedule more effectively.

Speaking of schedules, carefully note your own planned absences on the calendar so you can warn your authors well in advance about when you’ll be unavailable. For example, as I’ve begun moving toward retirement, I now reserve most of December as private time, when I will concentrate on my own writing. Thus, I warn authors at least two months in advance that I won’t be available during that period and that they need to reserve my time well in advance; I warn them that once my schedule is full, they’ll wait three+ weeks before I’m available again in January.

In my experience, busy authors often forget these warnings. That’s fair, since our job is to meet their needs, and their job is to write. In any event, authors benefit from a reminder. When I plan my annual vacation, I notify authors two months in advance and again one month before I leave. One useful, if deceptive, trick: If you know that certain authors always write to you at the last minute, tell them you’ll be gone one week before your actual departure date. That way, when work arrives at the last minute, you still have time to do the work. If an author notices this trick (“I thought you said you’d be away …”), explain that you would ideally like to have left on the date you announced, but you made time to help them anyway because helping them is important to you. This isn’t a lie if it’s true; the last week before my vacation is usually filled with domestic work and other preparations.

Provide status updates about your availability. For example, if you’ll be trying to edit a large book during a certain period, warn your clients there will be delays during that period. Be willing to negotiate extensions both with the author (for yourself), and with publishers that impose deadlines on your authors. For example, most journal editors are willing to give an ESL author more time to return a revised manuscript if they know that the revision is complete and the author is only waiting for their English editor to become available. (This won’t work if the publisher has a hard deadline, such as releasing a book or special issue of a journal right before a major conference, but negotiation works more often than you’d expect.)

Note: If you’re in the fortunate situation of having more work than time, negotiate agreements with colleagues you trust to work with your authors when you’re not available. Coordinate their schedules with yours well in advance to avoid any surprises; they’ll be absent sometimes, too.

As your workload increases, start building room and flexibility into your schedule to cope with unexpected busy periods. For example, I reserve one day per week for a client who sends me a regular stream of work. When they don’t send me a manuscript, I can usually find another manuscript I can work on while I wait for theirs to arrive. Based on many years of experience with how my workload varies during the year, I’ve learned to include such unscheduled (“open”) days on my calendar. Currently, I try to keep one day open per week in addition to the work for that weekly client.

When you receive a manuscript that’s longer than the author estimated when they reserved your time, ask for more time. If you can meet the original deadline, that’s great — but if you need more time, you have it. I’ve always appreciated the advice to “promise late, deliver early”; that is, if I’m able to complete the work faster than expected, the author gets a pleasant surprise, but if not, they still receive my work on the expected date. As I’m getting older, my editing speed is declining, so I find that I need this extra time more often. I warn my authors at least annually about the maximum I can reliably edit in a day’s work, and ask them to predict the length of their manuscript and ask for more than a day when they contact me to reserve my time.

Show, don’t tell

As I noted earlier, ESL authors often speak the language of their specialty far better than they speak the common language that represents the glue for social interactions.

Although you can sometimes rely on complex words if you know your author is willing to use a dictionary, consider instead whether you can illustrate your meaning. For example:

•       If you must resort to grammatical jargon, illustrate it. For example, “In this sentence, the verb accord is the dataset is or the data are.

•       If you must name punctuation, illustrate it: “Add or delete the semicolon (;) between author names in all references.”

•       If you must refer to shapes or symbol names, illustrate: “delete the asterisk (*) and replace it with a triangle (Δ).” Similarly, showing works better for patterns and colors: “Delete the red cross-hatching: [///].” (Editor’s note: Attempting to apply red “ink? to the /// element results in the whole sentence being made red.)

Part 2 of this article will continue with a discussion of cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips.” The final part will include references for the entire discussion.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Wednesday, December 2.

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) 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 28 stories thus far.

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