Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Regarding Prof. Jim Steenburgh's posting "about submitting a paper"

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Steenburgh's comments. As a reviewer, I have often felt that a manuscript that I was being asked to review was not nearly in as "ready" a state as possible. Not uncommon are manuscripts of this type with multiple authors; it seems doubtful that all of the "authors" have participated in the preparation of, or even proofread, the final submitted version.

The submission of poorly edited manuscripts or the premature submission of manuscripts can be viewed as an abuse of the peer review process. Asking reviewers - whose time is valuable - to review these manuscripts is disrespectful and ultimately destructive to the peer review process - reviewers become unenthusiastic and wary about agreeing to do reviews.

It would be desirable for MWR and the AMS to institute policies to discourage the submission of ill-prepared and poorly edited manuscripts.
An issue is that editors and reviewers are currently often unwilling to reject a manuscript, which has some scientific merit, solely on the grounds that it is poorly edited and inadequately prepared.
One possibility would be to ask editors and reviewers to identify such manuscripts. An editor, assigned such a manuscript, could return it to the authors without sending it out for review; and a reviewer, who received such a manuscript, could decline to review it on the grounds that it was not in a suitable state for submission in the first place. Such a decision or recommendation would be different from a rejection - the author(s) would be asked to submit an adequately prepared revised manuscript.

Herschel Mitchell
Editor, MWR

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How to respond to reviewers

Anonymous raised some interesting questions about responding to reviewers in a comment on a previous post. My response was getting quite rich in content, so I thought I would submit a full blog entry instead. Bottom line to Anonymous: I think you are approaching your response to reviews correctly.

As a reviewer and generally as an editor, I would be thrilled if every author responded positively to all the reviewer concerns and the manuscript was improved as a result. We could have one round of reviews, and the paper would be published. That situation would be easiest for everyone (reviewers, editor, authors). :-)

Although reviewers generally provide more useful comments than not, reviewers are not always 100% right in their reviews. Therefore, I tell authors that they should usually accept the majority of reviewer comments---especially the major comments---if they want to have smooth sailing through the review process on the way to eventual publication. I call this knowing how to play the game. A positive response to 70-80% of the comments, including intelligent responses to the major issues, usually makes me feel pretty happy about the way the review process goes. No one gets everything they want, but the result is a dramatically improved manuscript that should be acceptable for publication. When authors and reviewers know how to play the game, they submit decent manuscripts that are improved during the peer-review process and are published after one or two rounds of reviews. As an editor, I don't have to write long decision letters for such manuscripts---I trust that the authors will know how to take the reviews and revise the manuscript accordingly.

If an author does not meet these standards with their revision (isn't playing the game), then I as editor am put in an awkward and potentially compromised position. I am trying to balance competing effects: publish good, if not the best, manuscripts and publish them quickly. In most cases, I respect the reviewers (I selected them!) and their opinions, so I want to see that the authors have listened to what the reviewers said and have made positive changes to their manuscript. But I also want to give the authors some license to write the manuscript as they envision it and to publish their work quickly. I am handling 20-30 manuscripts at any given time, and the more peer-reviewed manuscripts that I can send to the publisher, the fewer are in my in-box, so to speak.

Like most conflicts in life, you have to know when to pick your fights. If you are going to battle the reviewer on a major comment or two, then accepting most of the other comments will give me as editor some relief that you are taking the review process seriously. That is why I say 70-80% as an estimate. I don't expect reviewers to always be right or provide exceptional comments all the time, and I feel authors should be able to defend some of their material against possible reviewer misunderstandings. But, if an author blows off half or more of the reviewer comments, then I think the author is being too resistive to change and I get annoyed. I am particularly troubled if the author blows off too many minor comments, which should be relatively straightforward to implement in a revised manuscript.

Good editors know when to bring this back and forth between reviewers and authors to a close and quickly. For manuscripts for which major revisions are required (about 50% of manuscripts submitted to MWR require major revisions), I try not to go more than two rounds. If I have to have a third round of reviews, someone didn't do a good enough job (usually the author).