On Reviewing Manuscripts

Update: Donald Trump is still Donald Trump. So, two weeks more and he’s still…bad at this. And has doubled…tripled…quadrupled(?) down on being bad at it.

In other news, this is my last week of summer, and on my to-do list today was a manuscript review for a journal in my field (the second for this journal this summer). The first paper was, if not a delight to read, at least readable and, I thought, publishable, and I said so. Ultimately, the journal agreed and the article was accepted.

Today’s paper was…less so. Far less so. The science wasn’t good. It wasn’t awful, either, but it was incomplete, inconsistent, and underinterpreted/underexplained. It didn’t make sense, and the paper didn’t really try to make it make sense. It felt like a summer student’s project, honestly.

But to make the pain even worse, the paper wasn’t in English. I mean, ostensibly it was, but in practice, it was a grammatical disaster. I know that this is due to language differences, but it’s irrelevant. In the long run, if it has to be published in English, it has to be written in English, too.

As I started to read it, I started to get irritated, and asked my Twitter followers if they’d ever considered rejecting a manuscript due to bad writing. The general answer was, “No, but usually the science isn’t great if the writing is that bad.”

Okay. Let me unpack my philosophy of manuscript review for you:

First, I try not to accept more reviews than I can do well. I accept everything sent by my society journals, and anything requested by certain colleagues (there are probably 10 or so people on that list, maybe a few more). Otherwise, I accept if it’s in my wheelhouse (meaning I should be reviewing it) AND I have very few other reviews in the queue. And by “very few”, I mean “less than two”. I don’t allow myself to have more than two unwritten reviews sitting on my desk.

Part of this is because I have learned, over the past decade, to triage brutally for my own sanity. And part of this is because the authors of a manuscript deserve reviews that are both thoughtful and prompt. You can’t do that if you’ve got 15 of them due in the next 21 days.

So, when I do sit down to write a review, I try very hard to really understand the data and the conclusions. Even if the writing is hard to parse. I don’t want to reject someone’s manuscript because it irritated me. Or because it was hard to understand. What if the science is REALLY good, but they simply didn’t have the ability to pay for copyediting in another language?

So, this manuscript was nearly impossible to parse. I spent more time than I usually do on a paper, both in the reading and in the writing of the review. I was irritated and having to push it back to get the job done. And, ultimately, in this case, I think I was right to be irritated.

It was a reject. For sure. It was also a massive waste of my time. I felt like I owed it to the authors to do a good job, but they appear NOT to feel they owe the same to the editors and reviewers at the journal. Not to put too fine a point on it: this manuscript was NOT a manuscript. It was not ready for prime time. It quite obviously should never have been submitted, and the editor should have seen that and not sent it out for review. I’m really not sure why they did send it out. And it took me extra time to figure this out.

The upshot is this: I will be far less likely to trudge through a hard-to-parse manuscript in future. Which may be a good thing. I will bounce it back to the editor with a note reading, “I will be happy to look at this again in the future, once it’s had extensive copyediting.”

So, what’s to be done? The editor was probably just REALLY overwhelmed, and this one slipped through the cracks. But, please, editors – don’t do this. Don’t subject your willing (and prompt!) reviewers to papers that shouldn’t be released into the wild.

And authors: don’t do this. Please don’t submit papers that you know aren’t ready. I get the pressure to publish, I really do, but this was egregious. I can’t imagine the senior author really thinks it’s a good piece of data, let alone a good story. It could be part of another story. One with another three figures’ worth of data.

And please, please, get someone to copyedit in the language of the journal you’re submitting to, if you can. It’s really hard to write in a language that’s not your primary mode of communication, and it’s even harder for reviewers to be rigorous about the science when reading such a manuscript.

Okay. Here endeth the rant.

Make sure you register to vote, and check your registration if you haven’t lately. 😉


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