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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