Tips for surviving the peer review

The peer review can be one of the most gruelling processes in science. Months of writing, redrafting, coercing your co-authors to actually read the manuscript and then getting them to actually agree on each other’s changes, before finally, somewhat anticlimactically, submitting it to the journal.

After all that you get some unappreciative reviewer slamming your work from behind a veil of anonymity. But this objective criticism is just what science needs. Here are some tips to make the process go a bit more smoothly.

  1. It’s nothing personal

I got my first masterpiece back from the reviewers and it was destroyed like a 5th grade teacher would mark the bad student’s paper. It was demoralizing. I was convinced the reviewers hated me and wanted to see me fail.

But on a re-read I realised that their comments were fair enough. I needed to add a lot more details for a reader to get why I had used those methods. Some mistakes were just an oversight and were impossible to see when I was in the depths of the manuscript re-drafting.

Look upon the peer review as a great opportunity for objective error-spotting. I’d prefer to see these errors picked up in the review stage than in the published paper.

  1. Reviewers are not always right

Early in my publication career I would always believe everything the reviewer said. Everything. They were all-knowing oracles and I was a mere PhD student. If they said something was wrong it was my comparatively inferior knowledge of the literature that made it so.

Of course, more often than not, they were right. But not always. PhD students also know all the latest literature. It’s important to stand by your knowledge. Reviewers are only human after all.

  1. Reviewers are not always wrong

Researchers are great at details and that makes us awesome at flagging errors in someone else’s work. Not necessarily so great at spotting mistakes in our own work.

Before going down the rebuttal road of “Please refer to ‘Thermodynamics for Beginners’ to explain why we did it that way” or “Actually we already explained that in the introduction, Table 2 and half of the discussion”, have another look over the manuscript.

That screamingly obvious point that dominated the discussion may just need to be reworded to explain the point more clearly. Particularly if the journal of interest is multidisciplinary.

One of the great advantages of the peer-review is getting the input of the journal readership before publication.

  1. We’re in this together

Reviewers are donating their time for the support of science. Their opinions are invaluable for making the conclusions hole-proof. Likewise, the researchers submitting the paper may have just missed something in the document that gives the required clarity.  Mutual respect is what makes the peer-review process much less arduous.

There may be many faults with the peer-review system. But it’s still the best process for keeping science honest.


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