Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cruel and Unusual?

“The writing in this paper is pedestrian and plodding.”

“The author shows minimal understanding of this topic, and this paper actually moves the field backwards twenty years.”

“The approach used in this study is unimaginative and the experimental design contains serious flaws.”

“This author has no idea how to write a proper abstract.”

Sound familiar?

Part of being a scientist is dealing with criticism. If it’s constructive criticism, the comments will help you prepare a better article or other science product. I get annoyed when someone fails to thoroughly critique my paper and instead offers platitudes: “This is a great paper—I can’t find anything wrong with it.” Well, I doubt that anyone has ever written something that could not be improved upon. Such comments don’t help you.

On the other hand, some reviewers, editors, and others are less than nice in delivering critiques of your work. They may even make unfounded statements or raise ‘red herrings’ that are difficult to rebut and waste your time.

Students are rarely taught formally how to deal with private reviews, much less public criticisms. In the previous post, I described some ways to deal with public criticism (letters to the editor or a formal comment on a published work). Most scientists go through their entire careers without having to deal with such criticisms. Actually, I find that the more novel, surprising, interesting, and controversial papers are the ones that are publicly attacked most often. So, in a way, these are compliments.

The contents of letters to the editor or comments are often not unlike the criticisms raised in reviewer comments. They point out erroneous statements, failure to cite the relevant literature, methodological flaws, poor writing, etc. The key message in the previous post for dealing with criticism was to respond only to the scientific aspects and ignore any personal or other comments that caused an emotional reaction in you. It's difficult to ignore these things, but it will pay off in the end.


biochem belle said...

EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organization) journals have started posting the review process file online-editorial decision letter, reviewers' comments, and authors' responses. I can't help but wonder if this will change the tone of reviews.

Anonymous said...

When reviewers are mean and nasty, and HAVE NO BASIS FOR ANY OF THEIR CRAP, it is really easy to drive a truck through their nonsense.

When reviewers are mean and nasty, and THERE IS A REASON FOR THEIR CRAP, it's time to ask your advisor to call the editor! The reasons for hellishness usually include: 1) a reviewer is stalling you because they have a similar paper that would be scooped if your paper got accepted or 2) personal vendetta, OMG doing what they do but better.

Make sure if you have enemies, to put them as conflicts of interest in your cover letter.