Halloween: Season of Reviewer #3

Halloween: Season of Reviewer #3

by Janice Nigro

I could walk into my PhD advisor’s office after more than 20 years, mention Reviewer #3, and out of all of the reviews of his hundreds of published articles, he would be able to go to a file cabinet and pull out hard copies of the reviews by Reviewer #3. Infamous Reviewer #3.

It really was Halloween, and I was waiting for a response from, yup, Reviewer #3. The article had been in review at one journal for over a year, and I was waiting not so patiently for his/her third “review manifesto” (because the reviewer wrote pages) on a novel serendipitous finding that had nothing to do with what we were really working on.

At the third pass, we had been waiting weeks for a final decision. How hard could it be after two extremely thorough previous reviews to send us a yes or a no? Difficult. For every day that I waited (because of the holiday), Reviewer #3 creatively appeared as a ghost effigy in a sort of re-enactment of some Hollywood horror b-movie. It is probably best not to admit which ones.

I looked back recently on those crumpled sheets of paper and thought the reviews were extraordinarily pompous. However, despite the arrogant tone of the reviews, the reviewer was intrigued by the finding (first message about reviews-read between the lines).

Ironically, Reviewer #3 spent a lot of time criticizing the English (it happens to all of us!). There was a whole list here, starting with the title no less, which was a clear attempt on the part of my advisor to have some fun in science but nevertheless aptly described the novel phenomenon in two words. The odd bit about the reviews was that they were full of clichés and some lines had even been stolen from Shakespeare as I discovered one night in a movie theater while watching Henry V.

Although I had some fun at the expense of the effigy of Reviewer #3 (only in front of my colleagues), I have to admit that this person improved my manuscript tremendously, both experimentally and in presentation. We made some additional findings that were also surprising because of the reviewer’s suggestions. Eventually the reviewer had no recourse other than to accept the paper.

My own style of reviewing papers is quite different. The first paper I ever reviewed, I am sure, was a test from my PhD advisor. I spent hours poring over this short paper, thinking that I had to write some clever bit to impress him. In the end, I came to a simple conclusion, that the data had been analyzed incorrectly. Two sentences, one summarizing their conclusions and one stating the issue.

Simple. My advisor’s review of my review was that it was spot on, and those two sentences were the review submitted to the editor.

I now have the opportunity to read a lot of reviews written for my editing projects from around the world. Scientific reviewing has become an even more cumbersome system because of the presumed ease nowadays to change really minor concerns. While some reviewers clearly lose sight of the point (which is to bring solid science into public view for discussion and perhaps teach), of universal concern is that the article be clearly written regardless of your mother tongue.

It is important to think about the reasons why. The greatest obstacle overcome is that a clearly written article facilitates the review process (even if the answer is no). If English is your second language it is especially critical to have it read by a native speaker because number one your paper will not be published without proper editing, and number two the reviewers will focus on the science and not be distracted by issues unrelated to the science.

There are the obvious reasons for editing. But the not so obvious reason is that a paper submitted with language and grammar errors can give the reviewer the impression that you do not pay attention to details-not only with regard to the language but also to your science.

It is also a form of respect for their time.

Today you also have a chance, because of the Internet, to reach a bigger audience, one that is diverse in discipline and training as well as in your own field. Research teams alone are comprised more and more of people across disciplines, and even they will benefit from a clear presentation of the biological mechanism investigated.

An additional highly undervalued idea is that new ideas for old problems can come from people outside of your field. It may be as simple as someone describing the behavior of an underwater creature that sparks a new avenue in research. Thus it is to your advantage to have a clearly written article because you never know who it can reach and what might happen as a result.

Reviewers can be key to accomplishing these goals despite a less than diplomatic approach. Fundamental to a review that ends positively, however, is that your conclusions are supported by a logical, solid series of experiments. Reviewer #3 was still skeptical at the third pass of our manuscript but the experiments were irrefutable. Twenty years later with new technology, the phenomenon was sort of rediscovered as were all of the other findings we reported, and it has even been designated as a specific biological process.

Maybe Reviewer #3 was really my ally.

©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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