How to answer to reviewers

This is another of the aspects of doing science that nobody explicitly teach you. The basics are pretty simple to explain (just respond to everything and point by point). You start by mimicking what your mentor does, how other co-authors respond, and how other people respond to your reviewers.  But after seeing different co-authors at work, and specially now that I saw a lot of responses from different people as an editor, there are bad responses, good responses, and those so good, that make your paper fly to the publication stage. Why? The little differences.

1) Be concise (i.e. give a lot of information clearly and in a few words). You can spend some time in formalities and a “thank you” part and a “highlighting the strong points part” is important, but make your case quick and personal. Don’t thank reviewers for “enhancing the paper” because you have too. Thank them for pointing out A or B, which really made a difference. If comments were minor, its not necessary to make a big deal with empty words because you want to be concise. Being personal and not using pre-established “thanks you phrases” helps connecting with the reviewer and sets his/her mood for reading the rest. Also, always briefly highlight the positive things. Editors are busy people, if a reviewer are supportive or partially supportive, bring that up in the response to the editor to put him back in context.

2) Following with conciseness, show that you care about the science. If you did a good work, reviewers do not know your data/analysis as well as you do, so make them trust you by providing details on the decisions you made, and back up all your claims with data and references, not only in the Response to Reviewers, but also in the edited paper. This seems obvious, but I’ve seen several “we don’t agree with this change” without a proper justification.

4) Number your responses. that allow you to refer to previous responses, and avoids repetition. Nobody wants to hear the same justification twice. If your reviewer is not tidy (e.g. do not separate main concerns, from small comments), you should be. Your responses should always flow and for example, you can summary main changes first, and then refer to it when brought up by the reviewer in the middle of other in-line comments that deal with smaller wording issues.

5) Put the focus of the review on the ms, not on the R to R. That means that other than in particular cases you don’t quote the changes in the response, but refer to the lines where the changes are. BUT the real pro-tip is that you highlight the changes in the new ms. Track changes are burdensome and require software specific, but using a different color (I personally like using blue font because red is too contrasting) for the changed sentences in the new ms is a big help for reviewers. This allow both, a smooth read of the full paper, and makes it easier to find the new passages.

Any other tip you use?

Using twitter to streamline the review process

[Update: Peerage of science (and myself) has started to use the hashtag #ProRev]

You know I am worried about the current status of the review process, mainly because is one of the pillars of science. There are tons of things we can do in the long run to enhance it, but I come up with a little thing we can do right now to complement the actual process. The basic idea is to give the opportunity to reviewers to be proactive and state its interest to review a paper on a given topic when they have the time. How? via twitter. Editors (like i will be doing from @iBartomeus) can ask for it using a hashtag (#ProactiveReviewers). For example:

“Anyone interested in review a paper on this cool subject for whatever awesome journal? #ProactiveReviwers”

If you are interested and have the time, just reply to the twit, or sent me an email/DM if you are concerned about privacy.

The rules: is not binding. 1) I can choose not to send it to you, for example if there are conflict of interests. 2) you can choose not to accept it once you read the full abstract.

Why the hell should I, as a reviewer, want to volunteer? I already got a 100 invitations that I had to decline!

Well, fair enough, here is the main reasons:

Because you believe being proactive helps speed up the process and you are interested in making publishing as faster as possible. Matching reviewers interests and availability will be faster done that way than sending an invitation one by one to people the editor think may be interested (for availability there is not even a guess).

Some extra reasons:

Timing: Because you received 10 invitations to review last month, when you had this grant deadline and couldn’t accept any, and now that you have “time” you want to review but invitations don’t come.

Interests: Because you only receive invitations to review stuff related to your past work, but you want to actually review things about your current interests.

– Get in the loop: Because you are finishing your PhD and want to gain experience reviewing, but you don’t get the invitations yet.

– Because you want the “token” that some Journals give in appreciation (i.e. Ecology Letters gives you free subscription for reviewing for them).

– Because you want to submit your work to a given Journal and want to see how the review process work first hand.

So, is this going to work? I don’t know, but if a few editors start using it, the hashtag #ProactiveReviewer can become one more tool. Small changes can be powerful.

Peer-Review, making the numbers

We know it, the system is saturated, but what are we doing? Here are some numbers from 4 recent Journals I reviewed and published (or tried to publish) recently.

Time given to me to complete the review Time to take a 1st decision in my ms
PNAS 10 days > 3 months
PLoSOne 10 days 2 months
EcolLett 20 days 2 months
GCB 30 days 2 months

I think most reviewers do handle the ms on time (or almost on time), and that editors handle ms’s as fast as possible, so where are we losing the time? On finding the reviewers! In my limited experience in J Ecol I have to invite 6-10 reviewers to get two to accept, and that imply at least 15 days delay at best. And note that all the above are leading journals, so I don’t want to know how much it take for a low-tier Journal.

However, the positive line is: There are people willing to review all this papers. Seriously, there is a lot of potential reviewers that like to read an interesting paper on their topic, specially if they get some reward other than being the first on knowing about that paper. So I see two problems, which rewards can we offer and how to find the people who is interested in reviewing that paper efficiently.

1) Rewards: Yes, I love reviewing, I learn and I feel engaged with the community, but it also takes a lot of time. However, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down. I don’t want money, I want to feel appreciated. For example, Ecol Lett offers you a free subscription for 3 months or GCB a free color figure in your next accepted ms (given that you manage to get one accepted). I am sure other options are out there, including some fun rewards, like for example “the person with more reviews in a year wins a dinner at next ESA/Intecol meeting with the chief editor” to put a silly example. Recognition is another powerful reward, but more on that line in the next item.

2) Interests matching: Rather than a blind guess from the editor of who will be interested in reviewing a paper, we should be able maximize interests. Can we adapt an internet dating system for finding a suitable partner to find a suitable reviewer? As an editor, I would love to see which reviewers with “my interests” are “single” (i.e. available) at this moment. Why sing in as a reviewer? May be because you want the free subscription to Ecol Lett or you die for this dinner with Dr. X. Also, by making your profile and activity public is easy to track your reputation as a reviewer (and of course you can put your reputation-score in your CV). Identify cheaters in the system (which submit papers but don’t review) will be also easy, and new PhD students can enter the game faster. Any entrepreneur wants to develop it?

While  there is still also a lot of bad advice out there which contribute to saturate the system, other models to de-saturate the system are possible (PubCreds are an other awesome idea). I am looking forward to see how all it evolves.