The review process. Part I: being reviewed

Peer review is one of the most important components of science, and it can be the most frustrating.

We write a grant or paper which we submit to a funding agency or journal. It’s then sent out to our peers who anonymously assess it and come back with comments/criticisms/recommendations. The editor/funder then decides whether to publish our paper or give us money to do the research.

The quality of reviews is essential to the proper functioning of the scientific process.

Waiting for the reviews to come back (and the editor/funders decision) can take anything from one to six months. If you’re an early career researcher like myself, you check for updates on the status of your paper/grant every single day. Why? Because your career depends on the outcome of these reviews. Rejection is by far the most common outcome, and dealing with that rejection is one of the toughest bits of academia. The reviews that are negative and cursory are the absolute worst. To quote Brass Eye, it often feels like someone is writing “You’re wrong and you’re a grotesquely ugly freak”*. These reviews are completely gutting and are a common complaint among academics. The trouble is that because the reviews are anonymous, reviewers can get away with this.

However, we rarely talk about the other negative reviews – the in depth useful critiques of how to improve a manuscript. I received one of these immediately before Christmas (actually, just as I returned from my work Christmas party full of good cheer and perhaps also full of good beer). After a day of being extremely grumpy that my paper had been rejected (and mildly hungover), I read the reviews properly and realised that the reviewing process had actually worked really well. Ok, so I hadn’t got the paper into the journal I wanted (which was a real disappointment). But on the other hand, people who really know what they’re on about took the time to provide very detailed comments, and I am grateful to them. These critical comments give me confidence: I have the tools to make this paper much better and get it published else.

So, to the people who reviewed my manuscript: thank you for your time and effort. You could have got away with a few lines of why it wasn’t ready for publication, but you instead told me how to write a better paper.



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