Reviewers are human (and: How to get published anyway)
When I started out as a researcher I didn’t really think of reviewers as humans. Scientific peer-to-peer review was simply the gateway to publishing my first papers, and the reviewers were usually not really peers yet at all: they were all more senior than I was, and I perceived any wrong judgements they made as noise, random errors.
And when reviews are bad (short, unhelpful) as well as negative, it’s usual to view the reviewers as evil machines.
Having reviewed papers myself now for several years, it has become apparent to me that there’s more to it, there’s a non-random, predictable component involved. It’s got to do with the fact that reviewers are human. Take me: I’m in research because I enjoy it. I even like reviewing papers, and I believe the best papers should be published. I’m also, to some extent, all of the following: vain, lazy, jealous, bad at concentrating, prejudiced, tired, sexist, racist, superficial, citation-maximising and ignorant. Don’t get me wrong: I’m working very hard at not being any of those things, and I believe I’m quite successful. Many other reviewers will be similar: they try to be good reviewers despite being human.
For you, the researcher who submits a paper, this is crucial information. You have done good work, you want it published, and the reviewers manage to base their reviews 95% on the quality of the research (I made that number up). That’s still 5% left to all the human shortcomings; these 5% can mean that equally good (or even worse!) research by someone else will be published instead of yours. You want to avoid that.
So, I hear you asking, should I suck up to the reviewers’ primal instincts? Well, to some extent the answer is Yes, but it’s less contentious than that, for most things that appeal to reviewers will simply make your paper better anyway. Let’s have a look at some.
Reviewers are vain and citation-maximising. This is an obvious one. You want to cite people that are likely to review your papers. They will be happy that you know their research, and they will review your paper in a happy mood. They might even consciously want to get cited more often themselves, and your paper (if accepted!) will achieve just that. But that’s a bit evil, so they will try to avoid such a bias. In any case, it’s not a bad thing for you to do it. The reviewers are usually chosen from the most relevant folks in the community, so if you don’t cite them in your introduction, you’re likely to miss a relevant reference.
Reviewers are lazy, tired and bad at concentrating. You want to make reading the paper as simple as possible for the reviewers. What they understand well will appear better to them. How to do that? Write precisely, without unnecessary jargon, without unnecessary information, but all the information needed. Most of all: write every sentence in a way that it can be understood the first time you read it! Reviewers really don’t want to waste their time re-reading your sentences. They are lazy and tired. And if they don’t understand your paper first time, then they’re going to be a little bit more likely to believe your research is rubbish. Needless to say that this will also make your paper better full-stop.
Reviewers are prejudiced and superficial. Not only do you want to write clearly, you also want to appear as if you’re careful (or simply be careful?). There’s a cognitive effect called the halo effect that pretty much says: people who know very little of you will judge you on whatever information they have. If you appear nice (positive) they think you’re clever as well. In terms of research: if your figures and maths look nice, reviewers will think your research is great as well (without even having read the paper!). Make sure your figures and equations look lovely, and you will achieve two things: you’ll be more likely to publish the paper, and you will actually have a nicer paper.
Reviewers are jealous. That’s a tricky one, but maybe not as tricky as it seems. Sure, the reviewers would like their own work to always be better than yours, but I think most people are generally accepting of really good work (even by you), so that’s fine. What you do want to avoid is bigging your work up. Claiming things that it doesn’t deliver, or simply stating an importance that it doesn’t obviously have. Your peers will not like that, as much as you wouldn’t like that bragging guy in your office to get an undeserved pay rise. Toning down your own assessment of the importance of your work will get your paper published; it will also make your paper better and, in the long run, more credible.
I’m not covering the sexist and racist biases here. There’s quite a bit of literature out there that deals with that sort of bias. I also need to emphasise, of course, that the first thing you need to make sure is to do good research, and that will get you a long way. I’m not denying that there are some reviewing arseholes, but they’re not the majority (in most conferences and journals…). What I’m really saying here though is that you should consider your audience, and your first audience will make sure that you put yourself in their shoes sometimes. You’ll get published more easily.