Long-term readers of this blog may recall that just before I moved out to Johannesburg (and onto Scienceblogs), I got back some rather robust reviews for two papers based on my PhD research which I’d submitted some months previously. Although I squeezed some humour out of the situation, the fact that these two manuscripts represented almost five years of toil and frustration made it hard not to take the criticism personally. And the prospect of retooling everything again – after struggling to produce sensible interpretations of my results in the first place for my thesis, and then having to recraft everything to fit the style of the journal we were submitting to – was, quite frankly, something I had trouble getting enthused about.

As it turned out, I’ve spent most of the past six months fully preoccupied with moving abroad, and settling into a new country and project. Add in lots of field trips, and the result is that it’s only recently that I’ve really had time to sit down and attack a rewrite. In some ways, the cooling-off period was a good idea, as I was in a better position to examine things objectively. This doesn’t mean that I suddenly found myself agreeing with all of the reviewers’ criticisms. Much of that stems from the fact that anyone studying New Zealand tectonics is presented with lots of different data sources, many of which seem to be in conflict with each other, and how you resolve those conflicts, and fill in a number of large gaps in our current understanding, depends on which sources you consider to be more important, useful or reliable, and also more general biases on how you think continental crust behaves when it deforms. There is currently no ‘right’ answer to these conundrums, and for all I know I my preferences may turn out to be wrong, but I’m still convinced that everyone is much better off when such meta-debates are conducted in the public literature.
That said, the reviewers did spot at least one silly error on an important figure, and forced me to think a lot more quantitatively about the tectonic model we were proposing. This is not only a good thing in itself, but in so doing I realised that I hadn’t fully appreciated the overall consequences of our model in one particular region – and it turned out that the necessary refinements solved a lot of other niggling problems. So, although it’s difficult to directly compare – the original two papers have now become one, and we’ve toned down a lot of the more far-reaching discussions – the paper I am just about to finally resubmit is a better paper. Peer review may suck, sometimes, and it’s far from perfect, but even at its most soul-destroying, you have to admit that it does serve a useful purpose.

Categories: academic life, publication

Comments (3)

  1. Kim says:

    I had a similar experience with publishing my dissertation work. I submitted part of the work to a special issue of a journal that was edited by someone who had worked in the same field area, and had come to different conclusions, and both the reviewers and the editor wanted me to change my conclusions to some that, in my opinion, couldn’t fit the data I had collected.
    I went through at least two revisions before the editor handed responsibility to a co-editor. And in that last round of revisions, when I had already started thinking about new problems, I discovered something: dealing with the reviewers’ criticisms drastically improved my writing. I learned something about how to make an argument make sense. And despite having a miserable time going back to the paper again and again*, I think that, in the end, the lessons were worth learning.
    (My experience writing papers since then has been much more pleasant – the lessons I learned helped me write better papers later. Maybe it helped that the editor and reviewers were not hostile, and that I wasn’t an unknown grad student any more, but I think that the improved writing also made a difference.)
    *By the end, I had begun referring to the paper as “The Bad Thing.” It was really an awful experience.

  2. curlicue says:

    My most miserable experiences have been receiving reviews that are vague 3-sentence broadsides. I’d rather have the detail, even when it’s pages of criticism. At least given the detail I might (1) learn something, (2) improve the manuscript, and (3) have something to grapple with… some ammunition when writing my respectfully saccharine response letter.

  3. As a professional scientist, teacher, and author, I agree:
    (1) There are few things in life more annoying than a bad reviwer or referee;
    (2) There are few things in life more useful than a good editor;
    (3) It is useful to calibrate yourself on the chart whose extremes are:
    (a) great first draft writer, terrible rewriter;
    (b) great first draft writer, great rewriter;
    (c) terrible first draft writer, terrible rewriter;
    (d) terrible first draft writer, great rewriter.
    After years of taking referees personally (a bad idea) I determined that I naturally fell into category (a) great first draft writer, terrible rewriter. By working openmindely with many coauthors, I gradually improved my paper re-writing skills. Now I find myself chairing sessions at conferences, being coauthor of 3 arXiv papers accepted within a single month, and looking forward to someday reaching the academic position from which I’d almost disqualified myself by bad writing tactics.
    Also, do not ever confuse quantity and quality of writing.
    Many chapters of my dissertation have been rewritten into refereed papers now. The dissertation itself, a third of a century later, has still neither been accepted nor rejected.
    There are geniuses who take a long time learning simple things. Einstein considered himself one of those. I’m no Einstein. But it’s never too late to play a better game with hand one’s been dealt.