Writing a scientific article: How to respond to reviewers

Somebody once told me: “if a reviewer asks for certain changes in your manuscript, you must follow those instructions or your article will get rejected.” Is that indeed the case?

I think that it depends. Very often, once we have overcome our justified anger that this nitwit of a reviewer dares assume that our carefully written manuscript is anything less than perfect, it actually turns out that the reviewer has a good point and that incorporating the suggestion will, in fact, improve the manuscript. So that’s the easy case: do it! (And say “thank you” in your cover letter).

Then there’s the case where a reviewer wants some inconsequential change, for reasons that move them but otherwise remain obscure. Well, if it matters that little, humor them. After all, they just spend some valuable hours of their lives going through your manuscript. (Yes, I know it was flawless, but they had to read it anyway before they could acknowledge your brilliance).

Finally, there’s a case where the reviewer wants you to make some changes, but you strongly disagree with what they say. Some people will argue that you just have to bite the bullet. “The referee said it, so we must do it otherwise the editor will reject it”.

I beg to differ. A good editor does not simply count reviewers’ votes. (Which is why I prefer to call them “reviewers” and not “referees”). A reviewer advises the editor. Nothing less than that, but nothing more either. Sometimes you see a reviewer write something like “I cannot accept this for publication” (or even “I reject this for publication”). Well, that’s a reviewer who doesn’t understand the editing process… Reviewers give advice, editors make decisions.

Anyway, so a reviewer makes a comment and you disagree. Again, several cases are possible. To start with, “that idiot does not understand what I am talking about”! Calm down. Yes, your manuscript is flawless, but if a reviewer who is committed to read your manuscript attentively misunderstands something that you wrote, then the risk that a more casual reader misunderstands you in a similar way is probably quite considerable. In this case, I gingerly suggest that the possibility exists that it might be feasible to reformulate your text a teeny tiny bit, just to make it clearer for that dumb reviewer. My advise to my graduate students (and to authors in general) always is that your writing must be so clear that it is impossible to misunderstand, even by a hypothetical somebody who actively wants to misunderstand you. Hence: revise and tell the reviewer (and editor) that you regret not being clear enough and have clarified your text.

Another case is when a reviewer disagrees with your interpretation of your data. You might then consider to address this not only in your (detailed) cover letter to the editor outlining your responses, but actually incorporate this in your discussion. Again, if the reviewer comes up with this, some reader might do the same. So the best course of action is to address the issue and explain clearly in your manuscript (and without telling the reviewer how stupid their suggestion is, for some reason they often don’t react well to that) why you disagree with their point of view.

And then there is the case when a reviewer really has an opinion with which you strongly disagree and which you think is clearly wrong. In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to state in your cover letter: “Not done”. Of course, you then dispassionately explain why you disagree and why you think this part of your manuscript should not be changed.

Once your revised manuscript and its cover letter have been submitted, the editor may decide to send it out for re-review, most likely to the same reviewers, or they may decide for themselves whether or not they agree with your reasoning and make an editorial decision of accept or reject based on their own judgment. This is why a clear, dispassionate, and well-reasoned cover letter is so important when revising your manuscript.

Of course, very often you have to go through multiple iterations of this process. And while this whole process is often quite painful, it helps to keep in mind that almost always, editors and reviewers are trying to help you improve your manuscript. Sure, I have also heard all the horror stories about incompetent and/or malevolent reviewers, but in my own experience as an editor, I have only once or twice encountered a bad-faith reviewer. At worst, a reviewer writes something like “good article, publish it”. That’s not an advice that is very helpful for either the authors or the editor (who based on this brief comment cannot even be sure that the reviewer actually read the manuscript) and is likely to be ignored completely.

Writing science, writing fiction (I)

Synopsis: Whether writing a good novel or a killer scientific article, the process is much the same: What scientists can learn from science fiction authors…

Many years ago, back in 1990, I attended my first Science Fiction Worldcon, called “ConFiction“, in The Hague. An interesting feature that year was the “Dutch Treat”. One could sign up with a group of about 10 people and invite a science fiction writer for lunch and talk with them in that small circle. To me, these “treats” were the highlights of that particular meeting. I did as many of them as I could and have fond memories of speaking with John Brunner, Harry Harrison (a Guest of Honor, accompanied by his charming wife, Joan), Fred Pohl, Brian Aldiss, and Bob Shaw (I think that’s all of them, but I am writing this from memory, so I may have forgotten one). Of course, these conversations spanned many topics and I was not the only participant, but at some point or another I managed to pose the same question to each of them, namely: how do you write a story (be it a short story or a novel in multiple parts). Do you just start, do you write some parts first and only continue when you’re completely done with revising them, or something else entirely?

Writing a novel

Basically, all of them gave similar answers and what interested me in particular was that the process of writing that they described matched rather closely the process by which I write my scientific articles (in a very real sense, those are stories, too). To¬† paraphrase John 1:1, “In the Beginning there was Nothing and Nothing Happened”. Well, at least nothing is happening visibly. What is going on at this stage is that an idea for a story has started percolating inside the writer’s mind. He (I did not manage to get into lunches with any female writers, although I got signatures from several, such as Anne McCaffrey) may not even be thinking about the story consciously, but deep down in the murky recesses of his brain things are shaping up. Then the moment comes to start writing, the Dreaded First Sentence (DFS). Sometimes that comes easy. More often it seems to be a stumbling block of Himalayan proportions. In extreme cases, the DFS can lead to a severe case of writer’s block. The solution is actually quite easy: write something, anything, doesn’t matter how bad. We’ll deal with this later in the revision stage and you’ll see that it will be much easier then. Once a first sentence is on paper (or, nowadays, on your computer screen, in 1990 most people still used pen/typewriter and paper…), things start going easier. In case anybody wonders, the DFS is, indeed the very first sentence of the story. Nobody starts in the middle of a story. (This is not to say that the start of a story cannot be in the middle -or even at the end- of the narrative, but that is a different thing). Sounds self-evident when we’re talking about writing a story, but nevertheless many scientists actually start writing with their methods or even discussion, instead of the introduction. Needless to say, this makes for bad story-telling.

Once the writer’s block vanquished, a first draft of the complete story or novel is written pretty rapidly. The writer doesn’t get mired into detail too much, that’s for later (“detail” being grammar, flow, repetitive words/expressions, and such, not story details, those are important from the very beginning). When finished, the draft is pushed aside for a while. This may be a few days or even weeks or months, depending on the individual writer. Scientists, of course, don’t always have the luxury to let things lie around for so long… The next step is revising. Followed by revising. And revising yet again. Most revising is actually cutting. Too many writers think that it’s the number of words that count, the more the better. In fact, it’s usually a case of less is more. Shortening a story or scientific article, often makes it easier to read and diminishes the probability that a reader gets bored and lays down the work. Once all the revising and polishing is done, the piece is usually laid to rest for a while again, followed by some more revising. At the latest, this is the point where that Dreaded First Sentence finally gets beaten into its ultimate shape. And then, only when the writer is now completely satisfied, the completed work is submitted to a publisher (or, for professional writers, an agent first and then a publisher) for evaluation.

Next post: Writing a scientific article. Stay tuned!

How to write an unreadable scientific article

Articles, books, and blog posts aplenty tell you how to write a good scientific article. “Don’t use jargon (too much)” and silly advice like that. But should we really make it that easy for readers to understand what took us years to produce? Isn’t it more reasonable to require the dozen readers or so that the average article gets to put in at least as much effort? And, you want to get your work in a high impact journal, don’t you? Ever seen an easy to read article in any one of those? See! In addition, if you write a really impenetrable article, it will make people believe that you’re really sophisticated, because they don’t understand what you write (and then consciously or subconsciously they think that it must be them, they’re just so much less intelligent than you…)? An added advantage is that you will drive editors and reviewers to exhaustion and after a few revisions they’ll just give up asking for more clarifications.

To achieve all this, I have some advice here for you.

  • To start with, have a look at articles published in the high-impact journal of your choice. There are plenty of fine examples of opaque writing to be found here. These journals of course claim that their content is intended for a wide public, but that is just another stratagem to make readers (you in this case) feel inadequate. When, in fact, was the last time that you understood even the title of one of their articles, unless it was directly in your own field in its most narrow sense?
  • Make it as difficult as possible for the reader to figure out what exactly you have done. Split up all essential details of your methods and disperse them: do NOT write a concise and complete “Materials and Methods” section, but only a brief one, giving only the “essential” details. All other minor stuff (such as what species of experimental animal you used and whether they were males, females, or both) can be hidden in “supplementary methods” (posted separately online in a huge document file) or, even better, in one of the legends of one of the myriad supplementary figures that you provide in the supplementary materials. Done skillfully, this can occupy a reader or reviewer for hours, frantically searching for details on any particular test that you have done or any method that you have used. A reviewer would feel really stupid if they claim you forgot to mention some detail and you can triumphantly rub their nose in the fact that it was there all along, they just didn’t read carefully enough and this invalidates all other nitpicking comments they made in their biased report!!
  • To obfuscate your materials and methods even more, claim repeatedly that this or that method was done “as described earlier” with a reference to a previous paper (if judiciously chosen, an added advantage is that this will boost your h-index), even if a finicky reader upon checking finds that this article either doesn’t describe that particular method or can conclude from some clue that you have skillfully hidden somewhere that it really is impossible that you have used any method described in that article.
  • Do not place “Materials and Methods” after the introduction and before the results, that is way too logical. Readers should be able to understand your results without referring to any details about methods, really! By hiding the methods section at the end of your article, you adequately indicate the low importance that this part of your manuscript has. Readers, authors, and editors really should just give this section only a cursory read. And those sticklers for detail that insist on first knowing what you have done before interpreting your data can just keep on going back and forth through the manuscript, serves them well!
  • Avoid giving any details about the statistics that you did. Just saying something is significant or not should be enough for any reader, right? Remember that if you use males and females, for example, and a treatment has a significant effect in males (t-test comparing treated animals with controls: p=0.0499), but not in females (p=0.0501) that this is solid evidence that males and females react differently to the treatment. I am giving the p values here to be pedantic, in a real article you don’t need that, of course. Please also ignore those wiseacres who insist that you should do a two-way ANOVA and can only reach such a conclusion if the interaction term is significant. Tell them that your conclusion clearly makes sense and that everything is obvious when inspecting Figure S36 (actually, it’s Figure S45, but we have to keep them alert!).

I am sure that there are many ways to improve upon the above advice, but I think this covers at least the major points. If you follow this closely, you too can soon be the proud author of a perfectly impenetrable article. It will look satisfyingly scientific, will make any reader feel appropriately stupid, and ensure that nobody ever will be able to repeat your work, because, let’s face it, we really can’t have that, now can we?


PS: Oh, and before I forget, do use as much jargon as you can, of course!!