How to receive a deadly sentence

OK, so you’ve already learned of the single-sentence proposal killer. You can imagine the response by the scientists making the proposal: “But you didn’t understand the significance! Can’t you see that this would change our understanding of XXX?”

Well, no, GG couldn’t. And that is precisely the message that the proposers needed to hear. If they truly believe that their work was maligned improperly, they need to see why they were not understood. What may be obvious to them was not obvious to a reader.

There are two facets to reviews: one is identifying mistakes. The other is identifying poor communication. Outright mistakes are typically greeted with a subdued, thanks for catching that. But poor communication comes through to the reader as logically deficient or inadequately supported, and the review of that can sound argumentative. So all too often scientists get a review and fulminate over how unfair the review was and scheme to get around that meddling reviewer. And truth be told, there are times when a review is unfair. But the message that the recipient of the review needs to get is that when the reviewer misunderstood something, it was probably because the author didn’t communicate clearly. And the first response (well, maybe second, after throwing the computer out the window or putting a fist through a wall) should be to figure out why the text was not clear enough. The first response should be to look inward and see what you can do as an author better; only after you are satisfied you have done all you can should you allow for the possibility that the review was lazy, misguided or mean-spirited.

(A third facet all too common in reviews is to squabble with the authors about the interpretation of results.  This is less an issue with proposals as there are no results, but it is where the strongest vitriol usually emerges.  GG’s approach in paper reviews is to set off such disagreements in their own area with the note that if the authors find the argument GG makes convincing, they can adjust their interpretations, but the presence of these disagreements themselves in no way disqualifies the paper from being published.  A review that demands rejection of a paper solely on disagreements over interpretations–i.e., not questioning the data, analysis, or presentation of the same–is an unfair review).

Criticism is easy to make and hard to take, especially when you have put years of effort into something. We train young scientists pretty well in the skills of knifing down work we think is subpar, but we do a lot less work on training them to make constructive criticism (after all, the authors aren’t usually in the room to hear how they should do things better) and even less effort on training them to listen to criticism and improve because of it. The net effect is to both encourage rather sharp-edged criticism and a knee-jerk argumentative response. This is too bad, because well-done reviews (even if very negative) are very helpful.  We’ll chat another day about what peer review for papers really should be, what it seems to be now, and why it is worth rescuing….

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  1. Review Writing 101 | The Grumpy Geophysicist - January 27, 2015

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