Introducing The Fourth Reviewer

(Flickr: Mark Seton)
(Flickr: Mark Seton)

Tim Vines is an evolutionary ecologist who found his calling in the process of peer review. He was Managing Editor of Molecular Ecology from 2008 to 2015, launched The Molecular Ecologist in 2010, and is now the founder and Managing Editor of Axios Review. Ever since I started at The Molecular Ecologist, Tim had talked about writing an advice column specifically geared toward questions about peer review — and now we’ve finally put it together.

In this column, which we’re calling “The Fourth Reviewer,” Tim will answer readers’ questions about the ins and outs of writing and submitting a paper for review, interpreting editors’ decision letters, responding to reviewers’ comments, and revising for a successful publication. If you have a question for The Fourth Reviewer, send us an e-mail. Questions will be presented pseudonymously, and may be edited for space and grammar — but Tim’s answers will always be his unfettered opinions, informed by years of experience on both sides of the publication process.

Without further ado, here’s our first batch of questions:

I’m reviewing a manuscript, and it’s full of basic grammatical errors. Should I go through and mark them all? I think the actual science is solid enough for acceptance pending revision, but I would hate to see the journal publish the paper in its current state. Is it my responsibility as a reviewer to copy-edit this paper? Punctilious About Punctuation

The average human lifespan is 680,652 hours. [Ed: Your mileage may vary.] If you want to devote five of those to going through a badly written paper and fixing the grammar, that’s your call. However, it’s not a good use of your time. First, the other reviewers might be doing exactly the same thing, so those five hours would be duplicating someone else’s efforts. Second, unless the paper is outstanding science in a crappy wrapper, the authors are going to end up making extensive changes to the paper anyway, which will introduce yet more grammatical errors. It’s much better for everyone to flag the need for extensive language editing in your review and let the editor make this a condition of acceptance/reason for rejection. The authors can revise the paper and then have the language improved by a native English speaking colleague or a professional editing service prior to resubmission.

Finally, grammatical problems in manuscripts are often associated with underlying issues in the structure of the paper – the ideas are presented in the wrong order, and the paper staggers uncertainly from paragraph to paragraph. So, if you do start down the road of fixing the grammar, you may find yourself restructuring sections of the paper instead. Since you’ll probably subvert the paper away from what the authors are actually trying to say, it’s far better to leave the responsibility of communicating the science with the authors.

Why do journals require so much specific formatting of manuscripts? Usually, when I sit down to submit a paper, I find a list of author guidelines as long as my arm — how to number pages and lines, what the margins should be, preferred fonts, even the aspect ratio of my figures. How much does all of this manuscript formatting matter, when I first submit a paper for review? Why can’t I just send in something readable and properly organized? Double-Space Case

Does manuscript formatting matter? Many journals take formatting very seriously. Should it matter? Probably not. I’ve never really found a satisfying answer to why journals have their own idiosyncratic formatting requirements, but I suspect that it’s a combination of:

1) No Brown M&Ms: Van Halen famously required that performance venues remove all the brown M&M’s from the snacks provided backstage as a way to screen for a more generally slack approach to contract compliance. Similarly, complicated and onerous author guidelines separate lazy and indifferent authors from the ones that really want to submit to your journal — only the latter will care enough to do all the arbitrary formatting. In addition, if you can pay attention to the fiddly details of the author guidelines, you’re probably also good at the fiddly details of science itself.

2) Workflow: Each journal has its own criteria by which they judge submitted manuscripts, and the process works best when everyone involved in the decision process can quickly access the information they need. The author guidelines enforce a common format on submissions so that all of the required information is available and in the expected locations. Of course, editors and reviewers switch between the vagaries of all the different journals they interact with, so these formatting requirements often stem from the needs of the editorial office to optimize their workflow and hence keep decision times as short as possible.

3) Drift: Many journal author guidelines contain a treasure trove of anachronisms, like a request to fax your proof corrections through to the Production Editor or an endorsement of CorelDraw for preparing figures. There’s also the odd formatting requirement that seemed important a few years back, but just hangs around in the Author Guidelines because nobody is really sure what will happen if it gets removed. The AGs are a long and complex document, and giving them a heavy pruning takes a lot of thought and effort. So, strange and unnecessary requests just hang around, puzzling and infuriating prospective authors in equal measure (see Point 1).

To answer the original question, I think the world would be a better place if there was a stronger distinction between formatting papers for initial submission and formatting papers for final acceptance.

Journals should have very minimal standards for initial submission: in English, contains the usual sections, citations in some sensible format, line numbers, and figure captions underneath figures. Given all the hoops that the paper will have to jump through before getting accepted, it just doesn’t make sense to force authors to put a lot of effort into journal-specific formatting right at the start. At Axios we have a minimalist attitude to formatting for submitted papers (see here), and we’ve not hit any problems so far.

It’s only when the paper is among the few that are accepted for publication that the journal should require all of its particular whistles and bells, and the authors should be happy to comply at this stage.

The community put millions of hours into dealing with unnecessary formatting requirements at initial submission, so I’m surprised that there hasn’t been some pushback that forces journals to reconsider their guidelines. For example, one could just submit in whatever format is sensible and convenient. If the journal complains, ask them whether your failure to comply with requirements X, Y and Z actually prevents them from assessing the paper.

To be sure, there will be some requirements that are reasonable, but I suspect the journals will often find themselves saying “good point – I have no idea why we require X, Y, and Z”. There’s certainly a lot of scope for change on this issue, as evidenced by the easy-going approach of, e.g., PNAS for ‘Express Submissions’ and Molecular Ecology for ‘From the Cover’ papers.

If you have a question about peer review and scientific publishing for The Fourth Reviewer, send us an e-mail. Questions will be presented pseudonymously, and may be edited for space and grammar.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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