Peer-Review: A frustrating, but ultimately helpful process

Published in Ecology & Evolution
Peer-Review: A frustrating, but ultimately helpful process

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I am currently working on a manuscript with coauthors that is on its’ second journal, third review. It’s definitely a well-travelled manuscript. Although it can be frustrating to go line by line across five or more pages of comments – several times – this will ultimately prepare your paper for the real world, the adulting of being a great paper. It’s normal to feel temporarily overwhelmed when looking at the pages of issues and comments about a work you likely spent years on, but ultimately, peer-review should improve your writing, making your paper easier to read and higher impact.

Peer-review is the final, in depth edit of your paper before it goes out into the world in its permanent state. Good writing of all kinds consists of dozens upon dozens of edits. Peer review is just another, albeit extremely in depth, ‘final’ edit. I know I’m not the best writer, but on average, I edit a paper about 30 times before submitting. Writing is editing. Writing takes some personal tough love. Does your paragraph actually add to the paper? Is this point as clear as it could be? The most important question I think a writer can ask is why would a broader audience care? What’s the one thing that matters here? Writing scientific papers is no exception. This editing and re-editing is true for writing, but also research design, statistics and bioinformatics. Judge yourself honestly, and be willing to let it go and improve. Be willing and expect to rerun everything, rewrite everything. I have had to rewrite the discussion, go into the rabbit hole of literature review to strengthen the theoretical background of a project, rerun multiple thousand-line code R scripts, and dig back through the initial raw data to make a correction. Reviewers are supposed to be yet another voice critically improving all aspects of your work one last time. They have been for me.

Going back to the basics. Questioning your assumptions and background is always helpful to writing a compelling article.

Good writing also has a story. Think about the papers you actually remember. They probably represent interesting findings, but they also probably share something else: they are easy to follow and tell a story. They aren’t just a pile of species and primers, of significance and fancy figures; they tell a holistic story that fits into the broader field and is exciting. Scientific writing is especially challenging because although you want to tell a story, it’s definitely not story telling. Good scientific writing is writing that is easy to read, that tells a story while still being very clear about what the research shows, and what it does not.

That’s not to say the process is easy, or gets any easier. I’m obviously not excited to spend another week staring at a computer, and starting back at the beginning of something I thought I’d finished a month ago, but I know it will make the manuscript that much better. I don’t really want to manually edit a 5,000 OTU phylogenetic tree matrix right now, but I know it will improve the paper and make all the previous work more valuable. It’s normal to need a day, or two, away from the comments to not take them personally. In my experience, most reviewer suggestions end up improving the paper. They’re a new perspective, but in your field, so they serve as a good practice audience; will the other people in your field find this flawed in a way you can correct now? Will they easily understand the impact and relevance to the field? With all the flaws that come with the peer review system, so far it has tremendously helped improve all manuscripts I’ve worked on.

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