COVID-19 cases are on the rise and it is officially a pandemic. While it is affecting everyone now, there are some who are managing the symptoms, or managing the consequences of their jobs being suspended without paid leave, or are experiencing many challenges to work from home due to child care or home schooling. Despite the difficulty of maintaining social distancing and implementing social isolation, it is really necessary to do so to minimize the spread of the virus and to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system further to be able to help those that have sub-optimal health conditions and require immediate medical attention.
It is no surprise that the current situation is anxiety-inducing. Now more than ever, it is important for all of us to check in, stay connected, be empathetic, and practice positive thinking. I myself try to appreciate some aspects of this forced home arrest, like avoiding the daily commute and the almost cheek-to-cheek dance in a subway that has no access to any sort of fresh air.
Realizing that it is very challenging for some scientists to work from home due to child care or funding or accessibility issues, I thought I would share some tips that may be helpful for scientists who are able to work from home during this time or even later once work in the office becomes possible.
1. If you are finalizing manuscripts, do what you can to help ease the review process. Make sure to include end notes like acknowledgements, data and code availability, competing interests and author contribution statements. Be sure to also include statistics and sample size in the legends and denote significance on the figures when relevant. If your figures include bar graphs, make sure to convert them to box-whisker plots or overlay them with dot plots to show the data distribution. Also, don’t forget to check the mandatory data deposition list and to submit your reporting summary and editorial checklist. These things often delay the acceptance of the manuscript later on in the process.
2. If preparing your point-by-point rebuttal letter for a revised manuscript, it is important to maintain professionalism and constructive responses. This is always true, but especially important now as tensions are high. Avoid being confrontational or aggressive as different views can coexist, and respectfulness is key. On the other hand, including responses like “we think our data is sufficient to make those conclusions” defeats the whole purpose of the peer-review and will only delay the process. Editors always take into account technical feasibility issues or if the paper can be accepted without additional experiments relative to the journal’s bar, but this does not mean it’s a good idea to dismiss the reviewers’ suggestions. We can’t help anyone then if the reviewers’ feedback is ignored or dismissed.
3. Reviews! These are good times to catch up on the literature and put together a perspective, if you have the time and inclination.
4. Better yet, learn about a new technique or even take a new course, taking advantage of online learning resources.
5. Be a reviewer; everyone benefits from your expertise. We simply cannot do it without you. If you would like to take a look at some reviewing tips, please feel free to check out this link (https://mts-commsbio.nature.com/cgi-bin/main.plex?form_type=display_rev_instructions). From an editor’s perspective, here are some DO’s and DON’Ts for a review:
i. Provide constructive feedback to the authors. Think about it, with your help, the science will improve and you are often providing comments to students and postdocs, training a new generation of scientists. Please refrain from using negative phrases. Instead of saying:
|“ENGLISH IS HORRIBLE, HOW DID YOU SEND IT OUT TO REVIEW” or “THIS IS THE WORST PAPER I HAVE EVER READ”
|“the writing can be improved with the help of a native-speaking colleague or perhaps an editorial service”
|“IGNORANCE ON THIS TOPIC IS UNBEARABLE”
|“I suggest those references that may help in strengthening this part of the manuscript”
|“THE TABLE/FIGURE IS HOPELESS”
|“the table/figure can be improved by including x,y,z”
ii. Suggest specific experiments. Some experiments are not technically feasible, beyond the scope of the manuscript, or beyond the journal’s bar. But if there are some that are needed to properly support the claims made by the authors, please do suggest them!
iii. Be open-minded. Science is all about exchange and polarizing opinions can co-exist without it being a reason to reject a manuscript.
iv. Step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes, we reach out to you for a specific expertise. We have other reviewers to cover other technical aspects. If the manuscript is about the ‘omics’ of glands in a species X, and you work on the ‘omics’ of glands of species Y, we would definitely benefit from your expertise. Sometimes we reach out to you to evaluate a method which you may use as a biologist or an end-user, so don’t be discouraged because you can’t evaluate the statistics or computational approach. If not sure, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
i. Report a one liner review. Some reviews report that “authors have not convinced the reviewer with their method/results and therefore the manuscript should be rejected”. This doesn’t help anyone: neither the editor, nor the authors. Even if the editor decides to reject the manuscript taking into account the reviews, the reviews should still help the authors improve the manuscript upon resubmission. To the editor, this counts the same as if no review was submitted and we have to seek additional reviewers, which delays everything.
ii. Just summarize the manuscript. What we need is your technical expertise and feedback.
iii. Mention that additional ‘experiments’ are needed. Without giving specific comments about how the authors can address the concern, it will be difficult to evaluate what needs to be done. It doesn’t have to be the whole experimental design, just the general experiment that can help address the concern.
iv. Disappear. Often times, the manuscript gets delayed in the review process because reviewers don’t return their report, or avoid responding to any reminder or inquiry emails. We totally understand that emergencies do happen and schedules do change. However, it will help everyone if the reviewer keeps us updated if something changed and we will do our best to secure additional reviewers as soon as possible. Sometimes, we decide to withdraw the reviewer and move forward, only to get the review after the decision is made, or after another reviewer has accepted. Communication is very helpful here and sometimes a one-line reply makes a difference. The goal is to avoid delays in the review process.
6. Practice your public speaking by joining a virtual Toastmaster’s club. You get to practice your improv skills, which can help you practice how to answer random questions on the spot, and communicate your science to a wider audience. It will also help you practice good managerial etiquettes, which include giving constructive feedback to your peers and mentees. The choice of words and tone matters! Plus, it is something fun that you can do with the family!
7. Finally, our hearts and thoughts go out to everyone directly and indirectly impacted by COVID-19. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if there is anything we can do to help. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who just lost their job, but have the skills to perhaps edit or revise your articles, design figures or websites, or even teach your children a new language or skill. More importantly, don’t hesitate to share ways we can help others who are in need.