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  • NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: How to bounce back from a bruising peer-review or paper rejection

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Credit: Adapted from Getty

It can be challenging to address peer review feedback, but its aim is to make a paper better, Adam Levy discovers.

It’s a great feeling when your manuscript is accepted, but the peer-review process after that can be tough, particularly for first-time authors.

In the second episode of this four-part series on publishing a paper, Adam Levy asks four researchers and a manuscript editor how best to respond when your paper is rejected or subjected to peer review comments that you disagree with.

Jen Burney, an environmental scientist at the University of California San Diego, says of peer review feedback: “It always feels incredibly intimate and personal the first time you read it. Who are these jerks and why are they responding this way. Didn't they understand what I did?”

In May 2019 Heike Langenberg, then chief editor of Nature Geoscience, published an editorial on the art of responding to reviews after handling a particularly fraught dispute between an author and a reviewer.

“You always have to be very careful to see all sides of any dispute, discussion or problems," she says. "As editors we try to put ouselves into the shoes of the referees and of the authors. We try to be as fair as possible to all sides.”

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00381-1

This editorially independent podcast is one episode in a four-part Working Scientist series on getting published. It is supported by the University of Sydney. Find out more about this content.

Transcript

It can be challenging to address peer review feedback, but its aim is to make a paper better, Adam Levy discovers.

This four-part Working Scientist podcast is supported by the University of Sydney. Explore our research at sydney.edu.au.

Adam Levy

Hello, I’m Adam Levy, and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In this series, we’re looking at the precarious process of publishing a paper.

Last week, in episode one, we looked at how to put your paper together. But getting your science done and the paper written is only the first step on the journey to publication because the next hurdle can feel more like an entire obstacle course. It is, of course, getting your manuscript accepted. Today, in episode two of this four-part series, we’ll be looking at how to navigate this tricky task. The feeling of getting a first paper published can be fantastic. Here’s neuroscientist Agustin Ibanez of the Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience in Argentina and the University of California in San Francisco.

Agustin Ibanez

So, I still remember my first paper published. It was an incredible, huge emotion.

Adam Levy

And here’s psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

Dixon Chibanda

I was just happy to see my name as being the author. I had no idea what being first author, second, third, fourth author, what all of that meant.

Adam Levy

But, of course, getting that paper accepted isn’t always plain sailing. It’s common for editors to decide against a study, either straight off the bat or either it has been peer reviewed. I asked Dixon if any of his many papers had ever been rejected.

Dixon Chibanda

Oh, yes. Of course, a lot. During my formative years, I worked very closely with Professor Frances Cowan, and I remember her saying, ‘You have to be thick-skinned if you want to get into this business because you will get a lot of rejections.’ Of course, the first time it’s always difficult. You think you’ve done everything that you possibly can do, and someone else, a reviewer, looks at it from a different angle and points out what you’ve left out, or the editor simply says this is not suitable for our journal.

Adam Levy

It’s easy for a rejection from journals to get you down. After all, getting a paper published is often such an important step in a career and so any roadblocks can feel insurmountable. Agustin has had to deal with these feelings throughout his career.

Agustin Ibanez

Yeah, this is terrible. I think in the last five years I have changed the self-emotion regulations after the rejection. For any researcher in the world but especially if you come from the developmental world, publications are a really important way to start to have recognition, so the rejections are a really, really tough issue. But I think that I have learnt to not take it personally.

Adam Levy

Of course, not all papers are simply accepted or rejected after their initial submission. There’s a huge grey area in between these two possibilities. Based on reviewer comments, editors can invite authors to revise and resubmit their manuscripts. This can mean anything from rewording sentences to carrying out more experiments or analyses. Even though this isn’t an outright rejection, it can still be painful to process the reviewers’ remarks, says environmental scientist Jen Burney of the University of California, San Diego.

Jen Burney

I mean, full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve ever had anything just sail through the process. So, that’s kind of a remaining-on-the-bucket-list item for me. So, you get feedback. It always feels incredibly intimate and personal the first time you read it, like who are these jerks and why are they responding this way? Didn’t they understand what I did? But I think it’s just really normal to feel that way because at the moment in time that you sent it off, it was the best that you could do, and now you get this influx of information, but it’s also a realisation that there’s work to be done and you can make it better.

Adam Levy

Like most published researchers, Antarctica scientist Pippa Whitehouse of Durham University in the UK knows just how much a kick in the guts a tough response from a journal can be. But she now knows that taking a deep breath and a moment for reflection can make things that much easier.

Pippa Whitehouse

If I have students and postdocs who now go through that experience early on, I think I have enough experience to soften the blow there a little bit, and just step back to the first principles of why you wrote the paper and what the important points are and maybe going to grab a coffee and a doughnut to cheer up as well.

Adam Levy

Of course, the point of the peer-review process isn’t to upset you, the author. It’s to make the science and the paper better. There’s always room for improvement and keeping this in mind can make receiving reviewer comments a more positive experience.

Pippa Whitehouse

I now realise that whatever I submit the first time, it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s going to need to be reviewed because it hasn’t seen a wider set of eyes at that point. So, I’d almost be suspicious if I got a very brief review. That’s not a moment of celebration. It’s a moment of slight wondering why they didn’t pick more holes in it.

Adam Levy

But sometimes reviewers can pick so many holes in a paper that it ends up resembling a sieve. This can be frustrating at the best of times, but can be fully infuriating when some of the remarks are based on misunderstandings. But Pippa says that even this can be an opportunity to make the paper better.

Pippa Whitehouse

Sometimes you feel like a reviewer has missed the point of your paper or they’ve got confused about something and actually, reflecting on that, it’s always partly my fault there, that we haven’t explained it very clearly if the reviewer has actually got confused.

Adam Levy

Whether the reviewer is confused, clear, generous or picky, you’ll need to find a way to respond to their comments, and whatever you think of their remarks, Dixon recommends taking an appreciative tone in your response to reviewers.

Dixon Chibanda

Rule of thumb – always be thankful for the comments, no matter what you think about that. Instead of saying, ‘This is already highlighted in this paragraph. Why are you asking me this?’ I would normally recommend that you thank the reviewer by saying something like, ‘This is an important observation. I would like to bring to your attention line 15 in paragraph 4, which attempts to address this issue.’ And sometimes, reviewers can see things differently. They could ask you questions related to confounding factors. ‘Have you considered this?’ Because in research, it’s possible to miss things. You could have a bias that you have not even thought about until a reviewer mentions it. So, there’s always a way of trying to strike a balance between what the reviewers want and what you want to see published.

Adam Levy

Just understanding everything that your reviewers are asking for can be a daunting task in itself. For this, Jen recommends taking a moment to absorb what the reviewers have said and then breaking things up into more manageable chunks.

Jen Burney

The way we try to deal with it is read it once, but with the full knowledge that it’s going to feel worse than it is, right. We often start by just taking the feedback and splitting it up into that line-by-line document and going through point by point what we think the response needs to be, and so this sort of disassembly and reassembly of the review comments I find to be really helpful for then figuring out, okay, we need to do the following 2 or 3 analyses and that’s going to answer these 17 points made across these 4 reviews. So, figure out the kind of priority list of what needs to happen.

Adam Levy

Our four academics - Jen, Dixon, Pippa and Agustin - have had to deal with all sorts of responses from journals. But we thought it would be a good idea to also get you some tips from the other side of the table. Heike Langenberg is chief editor of Communications, Earth and Environment and previously served as chief editor of Nature Geoscience. When she was in that role, she published an editorial titled, ‘The art of responding to reviews’.

Heike Langenberg

So, I think people have read it a lot. I think it’s our most popular editorial, possibly, ever.

Adam Levy

Heike explains that the inspiration for the editorial was an author whose response to reviewers was fairly heated. In fact, the author called the reviewers ‘obtuse’ several times in his response. When I spoke to Heike, she explained that she took the time to talk the author down from this fiery language.

Heike Langenberg

We went back to them and said, ‘Actually, you may want to reword that because this is not going to help your case with the reviewers,’ and then he came back in an informal email saying these words and he understood, and we were pleased to hear that our advice had been heard and listened to and then the response was changed accordingly.

Adam Levy

What’s it like, in your experience, being the kind of intermediary between authors and peer reviewers?

Heike Langenberg

Well, you always have to be very careful to see all sides of any dispute or discussion or problem. So, what we try to do is we try to put ourselves simultaneously or one after the other into the shoes of the referees and of the authors, and see what would they think if they knew exactly what’s going on in the peer-review process. So, we try to be as fair as possible to all sides. We have to kind of sometimes even out big egos of authors or reviewers, and we have to try and make sure that the outcome is as constructive and fair as possible.

Adam Levy

Now, when people are responding to peer reviewers, what is the most common mistake people might fall into making?

Heike Langenberg

That they respond in a too lengthy way, rather than concentrating on the important points. I think it’s important to keep concise and not to write 30 pages. It’s important to answer all the questions raised, but it’s also important to keep it as short as possible so that people don’t have too much to read.

Adam Levy

And do you have any experiences which really stuck out to you when you received a response and you thought, ‘Oh god, I can’t believe they’ve done it like this.’

Heike Langenberg

Well, sometimes people really start attacking the reviewer and that’s, of course, bad tactics. It’s also not helpful because often people say, ‘Well, the reviewers really don’t understand,’ and if the reviewers don’t understand then you haven’t probably explained it very well. I think authors need to be a bit more patient sometimes with reviewers and understand that the onus is on them, really, to explain what they have done, how they have done it and why they think their conclusions are sound.

Adam Levy

Now, apart from, I suppose, that kind of clarity, and also not going on for too long in your response, what do you think are some other important tips that authors should bear in mind when they’re responding to the reviewers?

Heike Langenberg

The most important thing for authors to do is to take those comments from the reviewers on board as a way of improving their paper and really improving their paper based on those comments, rather than arguing back in the response to the reviewers and not changing their paper, because if the reviewers found something unclear or impossible to understand, it’s very likely that some of the readers will find the same point important.

Adam Levy

It’s something that a lot of researchers talk about finding very difficult, and there’s almost a cliché of, ‘Oh god, reviewer two had these really difficult comments and what do I do with it?’ Why do you think it is such a daunting process for so many scientists?

Heike Langenberg

It is very daunting if you have this feeling there’s some anonymous power that you can’t argue with and that determines whether your paper will be published or not, but actually, we are like the regulator in a way, so we are trying to even out the two sides of the problem or the discussion.

Adam Levy

Well, of course, as an editor, you’re not just dealing with responses to the reviewers. You’re also dealing with people’s response to you. Do you have any tips on how people should write to editors to lead to, I suppose, more constructive conversations about their papers?

Heike Langenberg

So, we are generally not doing things out of malice, which some authors tend to be thinking, perhaps not even thinking, but they’re arguing as if they were, and we are not going to be convinced by people saying, ‘Well, all my friends liked the paper.’ That’s not an argument. We want a scientific argument. We want to be convinced, not threatened, and we don’t want to be just flattered. That doesn’t really help either. All these things don’t work. What we want is a sound, science-based argument.

Adam Levy

In cases where a paper is just outright rejected or accepted, do you ever encounter any difficulties, as an editor, in those situations?

Heike Langenberg

If we accept a paper then generally the authors don’t grumble. That tends to be quite unanimous. If we reject a paper, we sometimes get appeals in where people write in and say, ‘Well, you made the wrong decision here.’

Adam Levy

When authors are responding to reviewers and trying to perfect a manuscript, do you have any tips on the kinds of things that they should be focusing on?

Heike Langenberg

Where the science gets difficult. They like to think about whether they’ve worded things nicely or whether the pictures are pretty or whether the plots are colourful or not. All that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the science, and that’s the hard bit.

Adam Levy

That was Heike Langenberg. But what happens after you get that crucial science to the level where a journal agrees to publish? Well, of course, that’s cause for celebration, but don’t pop the champagne and move on just yet because the success of a paper doesn’t just depend on its publication. It also depends on whether people actually end up reading it or not, and we’ll be discussing how to promote your paper in the next episode of this Nature Careers podcast. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Adam Levy.

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