Having trouble getting your manuscript accepted? Suffering from mean reviewer? Read this to sneak into the mind of an evil reviewer.

The choice

As my PhD supervisor was an editor of a journal, I had no real choice. I became a reviewer by default. Which is a pretty scary thing when you are a young and naive scientist, but also very valuable. It taught me a lot of things, so I could avoid a lot of mistakes in my own publications.

If you read carefully you might find some (maybe already obvious to you) hints to help you understand the dos and don’ts when dealing with reviewers. Which leads me to…

The joys

The cool thing about being a reviewer – beside feeling superior and mighty, because you can criticise people being in the same poor situation (PhD student) as you are – is, that you get to read really interesting science before anyone else can. In rare situations, you will even see manuscripts which will never be published because your co-reviewers reject the work. Either way, and as mentioned above, you will have a lot of manuscripts teaching you how not to work/publish.

The dos and don’ts

Your dear writer of this article has reviewed approx. 100 scientific manuscripts (not counting project proposals) during the last 10 years. The vast majority of the manuscripts were in the field of (but not limited to) analytics, life sciences, biology, chemistry, biochemistry and sensors…

…and I rejected probably 80 – 90 % of them.

Not every reviewer will be as harsh as me. But you might run into one at some day. So, here are some points why I reject(ed) so many manuscripts and what you can do to prevent the same happening to you.

The journal

Before you even start writing your manuscript: pick an appropriate journal. Your work might be the next big thing in the field of e.g. metamaterials for supra conducting… whatever. But if you send it to the wrong journal, e.g. “annual review of microbial biology” (which I do not even know if it exists), it probably will get rejected.

Novelty

Your work should present something new and interesting to the scientific community in general and to the readers of the journal you picked in particular. The first thing I do as a reviewer is: google the title/keywords of your manuscript, and google the last few things you and your co-authors have published.

In the best case (for you), I will find nothing comparable. This is actually the worst case for me, because then I have to work and go really deep with my investigations in literature to be able to judge your work and its importance.

In the worst case, I will find out that you recently published something similar (or almost similar) in another journal, which you – because you try to fool the reviewer – didn’t even put in your reference list.

Anyway, if this is the case, you unsuccessfully leave the review process within like 10 minutes – game over!

The title

You might think that this is quite unimportant but this is really an investment into future citations of your manuscript.

Your title should be as short as possible, but as precise as possible. Then spice it up with something “catchy”. The latter is the hard part, but a good idea here is golden.

Bad example

“The synthesis of 2α,4α,5β,7β,10β,13α)-4,10-Bis(acetyloxy)-13-{[(2R,3S)-3-(benzoylamino)-2-hydroxy-3-phenylpropanoyl]oxy}-1,7-dihydroxy-9-oxo-5,20-epoxytax-11-en-2-yl-benzoat could hint that it might be possible to have various beneficial effects on the rare [insert name of who discovered this] disease, or maybe not.”

 

Good example

“A new treatment for the xyz disease?” (then write about the synthesis in the abstract).

 

Marvellous example

“CAR, driving into the future.” by Swales and Negishi, 2004.

This is a real paper, which I read over 10 years ago. I have no clue about the details any more (mostly because I changed my field of research), or its quality, but if I had to quote something in this field, this would be the paper that I cite. Just because it’s so easy to remember.

But of course, don’t overdo it. If you call your manuscript “Why all other papers suck – except this one”, you will surely get your readers and reviewers excited… but in a negative way. Even if you were right, you would have made your life unnecessarily tougher. The reviewer will love to point out your mistakes in the manuscript – even if you wrote the best manuscript in the world and your title would be valid. Oh, and also avoid such “cockiness” in the rest of the manuscript, which brings us to…

Honesty

Be honest. Do not be too critical with yourself, but be critical. You do not have to push the reviewer towards the weaknesses of your work, but if you discuss the pros and cons already, you will have one nasty reviewer answer less to deal with later in the revision(s). E.g. if you have found a new way to detect pollutants in drinking water, but it is 10 times less sensitive than the “best method”, honestly state that. And then discuss the advantages of your method: Do you even need to be 10 times more sensitive (where are the relevant levels)? Is your method cheaper, faster, more reliable, portable, … you get the point.

Do not be too critical with yourself, but be critical.

While honesty is the one thing, there is something that you should not neglect:

The story

You are (hopefully) an expert in the field your working in. Most likely (depending on the journal), your reviewer is not (at least not in your field). Even if he is, most readers of the journal he “works” for are not. To fix that, you should have “story” guiding your readers (and reviewers) through the manuscript. Tell them why your work is great. Why is it interesting to read for the scientific community? Explain why you chose to do your experiments and controls in the way you did.

This sounds so easy and so trivial. But I really, really often suffer from manuscripts, where I am reading the introduction for the third time and I’m like: “Why? Why should anybody care about this? Is it interesting for anybody at all? What is it good for?”

And this is because: explaining difficult things with difficult words = easy. Explaining difficult things with simple words = tough. Think of it like you would explain your work to your local butcher, or barber, or your grandmother. This is exactly where you should start your story. Then of course you should increase the level of logic and phrasing at some point.

Tell them why your work is great.

Choosing reviewers

Some journals offer this, some don’t. My advice based on my experiences: Stay far, far away from doing so. I did this exactly once – never ever again. I think this “feature” is only helping lazy editors to pick reviewers conveniently.

You are a scientist. Hopefully you are a good scientist. You probably have some scientist friends. You think you could chose them as reviewer for your manuscript. If you do so, you mixed up good scientists and good friends, because good scientists can be very nasty reviewers. And a good scientist will be much more critical with you if he knows you personally as friend, because that is what good scientists do.

On the other hand. If a journal offers the possibility to exclude reviewers from the process: do so! This one guy who’s running a vendetta with your PhD supervisor for the last two decades because he’s a contender of your boss – you do not want him as reviewer (no matter how professional he is).

Good scientists can be very nasty reviewers.

The review review

By this I mean not reviewing a manuscript, but writing a review. Writing reviews is great. On the pro side: you get a publication, you will acquire deeper knowledge and a good overview of the current literature in this field, and its quality is purely based on your enthusiasm. On the contra side: its quality is purely based on your enthusiasm.

Taking these points into account, you should pick a field you are particularly interested in. But you do not need to be an expert in it right now. After finding a nifty title (see above), you will need to dig deep into the literature and don’t be afraid to also cite rather unknown publications – beware of the Mathew effect. But most importantly, do state your opinion in your review: This will be one of the things, which makes a review really valuable to the reader. The other thing is: tables. Review readers love tables. If you don’t have one (no matter if it makes sense or not), that’s going to be the first thing a review reviewer will ask for.

Bottom line

Following these small tips will – of course – not guarantee that your manuscript will be accepted, but following these small tips may help you when dealing with evil reviewers. Additionally, you might have noticed that I skipped some obvious points to take care of: e.g. naming of figures, replicates, … This is, because you already should have learned about this during your time at university.

Remember: there’s nothing more beautiful to a reviewer than an interesting and well written publication to review. So, start writing!

This article was written by
When Peter is not trying to save the world, he is managing the R&D activities at Biametrics. Ancient legends tell that he studied biochemistry before receiving his PhD in physical chemistry and becoming an expert in kinetics.