Friday, March 09, 2007

Rose-Colored Review Glasses

One of my students just got reviews back for his first paper ever. I think the reviews are great, but he was devastated by them. To survive the review process, you've got to look at reviews through a certain type of lens or filter that allows you to ignore the useless comments from cranky reviewers and extract the essence. In this case, the essence is very positive. One reviewer, an associate editor, and the uber-editor used words like "superb", "will have a major impact", "of broad interest", and "very well-written". The cranky review is short and vague. We will do a serious revision, write a thorough and thoughtful cover letter, resubmit the manuscript, and I have every confidence that the paper will be published.

I think my student's disappointment comes in part from an unrealistic expectation that if you work extremely hard on an interesting paper and have excellent data, well-written text, beautiful figures, and all the rest, that the reviews will all be positive. That does happen occasionally, but when it doesn't.. it's not the end of the world (or your career). I hope his disappointment will be short-lived and supplanted by the thrill of his first paper's being accepted and published in the near future.


Ms.PhD said...

This is a topic I think bears further discussion. Based on my conversations with students, it's clear that they are all completely sheltered from the realities of scientific publishing.

I had an interesting conversation recently with someone who has a vested interest in biomedical advances (a sick relative). He was shocked that it's so hard for us to get our new ideas out there, and how petty reviews can sometimes be. He asked what most of us want to know- in this day and age, can't we decide for ourselves what we believe? Why do we have to wait for some random, cranky review to give it a greenlight before it's accessible to anyone else to read?

Anonymous said...

My advisor used to say that, to be a successful scientist, you had to be a bit of a 'cowboy'. I took that to mean a thick skin and enough confidence to know when your ideas are good, even if you get a bad review.

I remember being pretty discouraged at some of the reviews of my first few papers, my confidence in my abilities shaken. But with my advisor's help, I learned how to respond productively. Over time, I've built enough experience to know when I can revise and get a manuscript published, when (and how) to argue against bad editorial decisions, and when to walk away, revise, and try at another journal. I believe, with good mentoring and some experience, many students can learn this same confidence.

James said...

On a fairly related tangent, and hoping I'm not speaking out of bounds here:

Do you have any tips for an undergraduate looking how to write scientifically? I'm volunteering at a neurology lab on-campus and was told that undergraduates "may" contribute to project write-ups, but that we usually lack the scientific literacy to do so.

Questions regarding where to gain the requisite "literacy" (a term that sounds specific, but is actually rather vague when you try to go hunt it down) were duly evaded.

So, how do you teach your students to begin write-ups of their research?

PhD Mom said...

I have a confession to make. Reading reviewer comments to my manuscripts can still bring me to tears. I guess I don't take criticism well. But... I have learned to expect that reviews will not be glowing (or to find the hidden positive gem amidst all the requests for changes). I have learned to read the reviews and then put them away for a day or two to cool off. And then, I have learned to carefully and thoughtfully address each reviewer comment politely. And I am still here writing and publishing papers.