Authors, editors and reviewers are people, why we don’t behave like that? When I receive an invitation to review a paper I can’t picture an editor writing it, but only a software program sending emails. The same nice program thanks me when I agree to review, and tells me how “the journal” appreciate my dedication when I complete my task. If I am lucky it also sends me the final decision (which should be a no-optional courtesy). Usually there is not a real communication, but just one direction speech. In that situation, I feel no empathy, and that lowers my motivation. I argue that manually writing all communication emails would have a low cost, compared with the potential benefit on the overall satisfaction of authors, reviewers and editors.
After some years in the publishing game, I’m still surprised how impersonal the publication process is. Here are some ideas:
1) Engage people on the process
Being impersonal can save some minutes of writing, but it doesn’t speed up the process because anyone is engaged in the process. I am more likely to accept and do a fast review if I get a personal email, saying for example, that the authors suggested my name, or that the editor likes my work on the topic, or that the authors build upon a previous paper I authored. I know this things are implicit, but humans are weird animals, and need to be told things in the right way. I even got invitations from editors I know very well personally with a default template. But to be fair, I also had friendly correspondence with an editor I didn’t know personally, and that was after rejecting to do the revision. I am sure I will consider her future requests more positively, because I felt she cares.
2) Give feedback
Reviewers need feedback too. Especially in early career stages one needs to know if they are doing a good job. Editors can spend two minutes answering to your review briefly instead of the automated email. Do they thank you for a thoughtful review or for your short review? That clue would be enough for most people to understand, if they want to understand. I’d be also happy if editors asked me further what do I think about any missing point once in a while. Science should be more conversational.
3) Ask questions
I found editors to be always very happy to answer questions. Surprisingly, most people I know rarely ask anything, and I think this is because authors (and reviewers) have this feeling that they are talking with machines, instead than with people. I learnt that is ok to update the editor during the revision process “that we don’t plan to include the simulation proposed by Reviwer 1, because it would imply 5 extra pages of appendixes and no relevant new information” above hand. He completely agreed with us. That way you can have an early feedback before you point your work in one direction. Some editors are great on explaining what they feel important to amend, but others not. I recently got a two-lines “reject and resubmit” decision. One reviewer was very positive and the other one only said “too narrow for that journal”. What do this mean? should I change a few things highlighting the novelty? or should I engage in a major rewriting of the focus of the paper? I still don’t know what the editor wanted. I didn’t ask this time.
4) Always sign your reviews
Feelings are going to interfere in your actions anyway, so is better if you are aware of that. Sign whatever you do makes you more aware of your biases. That’s why (after a lot of thoughts and advises not to do it) I decided to sign my reviews. That puts my suggestions in a context for the authors (i.e. a non-native english speaker, postdoc, with experience in temperate systems), but more importantly, as an author I take suggestions from a colleague way happier than from an unknown person. From the reviewer perspective, it forces you to write more carefully, and if you did a good job, authors will be happy (sometimes even if the paper is rejected), and they will know about your work. Once in a while an author will get pissed off, but I hope for each one, 100 will be pleased (or at least 10?).
This week I am reviewing your article, but next week I will be the author and you the reviewer. People behave different when they are into a rol, than when they are themselves (see extreme cases). Why not be more personal, then?