Two Can Play the Game of “You”: Behavioral Consequences of Second-Person Pronouns in Written communications Between Authors and Reviewers of Scientific Papers

In peer review, authors addressing reviewers using second-person pronouns receive fewer questions, shorter responses, and more positive feedback. This is because “you” (vs. non-“you”) usage creates a more personal and engaging conversation. Here, the authors offer some reflections on their work.
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Weighing the use of words can be a treacherous endeavor, especially when there are some high stakes involved. Indeed, no one wants to rub the reader the wrong way in, say, a legal filing, a personal statement to a prospective employer, or, for us academics, a response to peer review. The idea for this research originated in such a walking-on-eggshells scenario, when a corresponding author, revising and resubmitting a paper, noticed a senior coauthor replaced all third-person references to reviewers with “you.” The senior author’s rationale was that doing so adds a human touch, potentially benefiting the review process.

When a more experienced person in a field points out a seemingly small thing and claims that could make all the difference, you usually respect that experience, which was exactly what said corresponding author did. He, however, did that with a fair share of curiosity about whether such a subtle change in language truly has merit. Thus, the core question of this project was conceived: Does addressing the other conversational party using second person, as opposed to third person, really matter, at least in the context of peer review?

The rest, as they say, is history. We sure went to great lengths trying to find the answer—examining 25,679 instances of peer review correspondence with Nature Communications and conducting two experiments to bolster causality. Sure enough, we did find that during peer review, authors addressing reviewers using second-person pronouns receive fewer questions, shorter responses, and more positive feedback. We further showed that this shift in the review process occurs because “you” (vs. non-“you”) usage creates a more personal and engaging conversation. Not surprisingly, many of our effects are further bolstered when both authors and reviewers use “you,” suggesting that “you” usage is a game that takes two to play to maximize its potential.

Based on the feedback we received from reviewers and readers, we know now that these effects intrigue not only us but many colleagues in academia as well. After all, who hasn’t been there—pulling our hair out at midnight trying to tame that infamous Reviewer 2 (but if you ever wonder, our Reviewer 2, like all other reviewers, was extremely supportive, constructive, and amiable), at whose whim and mercy our very career hangs in the balance? And oh boy, have we all sought that magical spell to make peace with reviewers!

But of course, we are not claiming to have found that magic spell, nor do we believe that using “you” is the only or universally effective approach to peer review. As with almost any human behavior, it goes without saying that the outcome of peer review cannot and should not be reduced to a single factor. However, it is very exciting to know that seemingly subtle semantic cues can exert a significant impact on an aggregated level, an excitement shared by our editors, reviewers, and many researchers like us alike.

Speaking of which, we would like to give a huge shoutout to our Senior Editor Brittany Cardwell, whose dedication and assistance led to the fruition of this work; and to the five (!) Reviewers who graciously disclosed their names so we know to whom our thanks should go: Reagan Mozer, James Pennebaker, Stephen Pinfield, Ariana Orvell, and Yang Wang. As a paper investigating a question of extraordinary interest to the research community, it is only fitting that this work also goes through an extraordinary review process itself. To quote James Pennebaker, Reviewer 3 of this paper who won much respect and love of ours: “I’ve rarely seen such positive and lengthy initial reviews to a paper.” Indeed, we were blown away when receiving the reviewer comments in the first review round: We might have gotten five reviewers and a ton of questions, but it was also crystal clear to us that all reviewers were genuinely intrigued by our subject matter, engaging with palpable curiosity about what our data held and revealed. This display of scholarly curiosity reminded many of us why we chose the path of research; and the array of questions made ours a much better paper, leading to the addition of new literature, experiments, robustness checks, analyses, and more. This journey, arduous as it was (think about this: three out of the five authors fell ill due to overwork), represented to us the epitome of scholarly inquisitiveness, marked by engaging, intellectual, and amicable conversations. Indeed, as our very research suggests, it was precisely this type of conversation that made all the difference. So, as weird as it may sound, this review process proved a joyous and once-in-a-lifetime experience. Who would have thought.

On a related note, we believe that this study also showcases the importance and potential of interdisciplinary research. The reviewers of this work come from a variety of academic backgrounds, as do our authors. At the end of the day, we believe that we are all pleased with how econometric and psychological methods complemented each other towards a robust conclusion.

Also, a few words on data interpretation. Due to the lack of rejected work in our data, our research does not claim that “you” usage improves acceptance chances for academic papers, an interpretation we have already seen online. While it is tempting (and does not seem too far-fetched) to draw such a conclusion, we need to caution our readers that psychologically speaking, attitude can be quite different from actual behavior. Therefore, we would rather refrain from this sort of leap of faith, and await future data and research to better explore that front.

Relatedly, some other future directions we definitely want to see include (1) whether the effect will persist or wear off (or even backfire) when second person pronouns’ effect become public knowledge of sorts; (2) whether there are other effect (e.g., that of first-person usage) to be explored in our dataset, which we already made public; and (3) whether the found effect holds in other communicative contexts. We believe these questions are of great theoretical and practical interest, and cordially invite you to join these future investigations.      

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Social Psychology
Humanities and Social Sciences > Behavioral Sciences and Psychology > Social Psychology
Econometrics
Humanities and Social Sciences > Economics > Quantitative Economics > Econometrics

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