What reviewers think (Part 1)

For Peer Review Week, we are delighted to share two great blog posts by eLife Ambassadors Ahmet Bakirbas (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Giulia Bertolin (Institut de Génétique et Développement de Rennes).

As ECRs, we’ve all occasionally wondered what goes on in a reviewer/editor’s mind and how to satisfy their seemingly limitless appetite for criticism! Here, Ahmet and Giulia talk to editors at eLife and other journals, as well as several experienced reviewers, to find out what irks them about new manuscripts, what advice they’d like to give reviewers and authors, and how we can all make peer-review a better experience all-around.

In Part 1, Ahmet begins by asking, “What are editors’ favourite pet peeves?”

“Proofread your paper”

When asked about their ‘pet peeves’, most interviewees pointed out that errors in spelling and grammar appear far too often in manuscripts they review. eLife Senior Editor Marianne Bronner (California Institute of Technology, USA) strongly recommended that authors proofread their paper and ask other colleagues or contributors to read it before submitting.

eLife Reviewing Editor Yukiko Goda (RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan) and Editor in Chief of Plant Direct Journal, Ivan Baxter (Danforth Plant Science Center, USA) both pointed out that authors tend to over-interpret their data or overstate the significance of their conclusions. Dr. Goda adds that biased citations are another issue she frequently sees while reviewing manuscripts.

Lies, damned lies and statistics…

Plant biologist, Dr. Dan Kliebenstein (UC Davis) pointed out the ‘plant blindness’ of researchers working in yeast, Drosophila or humans who often skip citing previous work done in plants. Furthermore, he stated that authors frequently opt for inappropriate statistical approaches to use on their data, such as picking the simple t-test instead of multi-factor ANOVA or other linear modeling methods. Phillip Zamore (University of Massachusetts Medical School) emphasized the importance of replicates and presenting data quantitatively with statistical analysis, pointing out that every experiment should be done multiple times and that “three times is often not enough”. 

Don’t be pedantic

We also asked interviewees whether they observe any mistakes particularly made by ECR authors. eLife Reviewing Editor Christopher Burd (Yale School of Medicine, USA) thinks that manuscripts authored by ECRs can often be “overly pedantic, with the stated significance of the results falling short of verbose presentation”. Dr. Bronner agrees with Chris Burd and states that many authors, not just ECRs, make their abstracts “too long and complicated”. She continued by saying “A short and punchy abstract grabs the interest of the editors and reviewers and can make the difference between whether your paper gets reviewed or not”.

You are not an idiot so don’t assume the author is an idiot.

According to Dr. Kliebenstein, ECRs are more likely to try and fit their data into existing hypotheses. He advises ECRs to come up with reasons or new ideas to explain data that contradicts the community dogma. Zamore has a similar perspective and suggests that ECRs explain what they learned from their data, instead of writing from the standpoint of experimental techniques used.

What would you tell your younger self?

Every expert, editor or reviewer was once an ECR and so we asked them what advice about writing and reviewing manuscripts they’d give their younger selves. The answers were very diverse. Dr. Burd said that “time limits and deadlines are crucial, not only for your own time but in fairness to authors of papers that you are reviewing”. Dr. Bronner says: “I would tell myself not to write overly long reviews. In general, I can tell “young” reviewers because they tend to be too long and too detailed. ”

Dr. Goda reiterated the importance of a clear and succinct storyline and it’s importance in improving the clarity of writing. Zamore also adds that fewer words are almost always better, especially for figure legends. He says “if you need more than two sentences per panel in the legend, you should redraw the figure”.

Be open about what you don’t know

Dr. Baxter says that he would “advise my younger reviewer self to be more open about what I don’t know: be clear about the parts of the paper you feel qualified to review and just state that you don’t know about parts of the manuscript that are way outside your comfort zone.” He also points out that it’s important for reviewers to realize that papers belong to their authors, not their reviewers.

Both Dan Kliebenstein and Phillip Zamore emphasized that it’s important for a reviewer to empathize with manuscript authors, who after all are just other scientists like themselves. In Zamore’s words, “Remember that there is a smart, generally kind person on the receiving end of your reviews.” More forthrightly, Kliebenstein tells reviewers, “You are not an idiot so don’t assume the author is an idiot.

By Ahmet Bakirbas (@plantbiol)

Ahmet is a PhD student researching long-distance iron signalling in plants at the Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Edited by Devang Mehta (@drdevangm)

We are grateful to all the editors and reviewers who took the time to reply to our question. You can read the full, un-edited interviews here.

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