Reviewers: Look Up Papers

A solution to the issue of self-plagiarism in the Methodology section is to write up the method thoroughly in the first paper of the series and then only have a couple of sentences in subsequent papers with a reference back to this full-length description. I like this solution, as long as the subsequent papers include the key elements of the methodology that are essential for understanding the results of that new study. Maybe nothing needs to be highlighted beyond what was in that initial full description paper, but sometimes the follow-on study focuses on a particular aspect of the full methodology and therefore it is useful to remind the readers about that specific point.

For this solution to work, it takes an effort on the readers of the papers to look up the initial paper with the full description. With the push towards Open Access, including the availability of past papers, this is rather easy. Given the full citation in the reference list, I can usually have electronic access to the paper within minute. I don’t need the authors to repeat verbatim a methodology description they have already published.

While some researchers prefer to give a complete methodology description in every paper, this idea of citing published work and just giving a sentence or two about the relevant points to the new study has a long tradition in scientific publishing. This about the Introduction; it’s entirely written this way. Sometimes a published study gets a full paragraph, but usually they get a sentence at most, and sometimes just inclusion in a listing along with other similar papers. This style is fully acceptable in the Introduction and we need to start embracing it in the Methodology section as well.

This requires a change of mindset for some reviewers. Something like this:

RetrainYourBrain

A cool graphic I grabbed from here.

When a manuscript has only a short methodology section and instead refers to previously published papers for these details, reviewers should look up these papers for those details. Only the elements of the methodology that are critical for understanding the new work needs to be included in the new paper. Reviewers should not demand a complete description of the methodology in every manuscript when it is already available in another paper.

As an Editor, I will try to spot requests for more methodology and make a judgment call on whether the authors need to adhere to the reviewer’s request. I might not catch such requests, though, so authors should feel empowered to push back on such requests from reviewers when there is a complete description of the requested details already in print. This will bring the issue to my attention when I read your responses (or entered in the cover letter text box during submission) and I can arbitrate at that point. Sometimes, the extra text is needed because the detail is essential to properly understand the new work; other times, though, it is extraneous.

Let’s all help to make the world a place with more concise writing.

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2 thoughts on “Reviewers: Look Up Papers

  1. I am generally in agreement with this, but there is a trap that some authors are prone to, and that reviewers should call out if it happens. Sometimes a manuscript will say that they are using the method of Reference A with minor modification X. Reference A will turn out to have a passage saying that they are using the method of Reference B with minor modification Y. Et cetera. Such authors are not giving proper credit to the authors of Reference B, C, D, …, as well as making it needlessly difficult for readers to understand the methodology. Authors should be sure that at least one reference cited in the methodology section has a complete description of the basic method, as well as the subsequent references in which the methodology was refined. Reviewers should check that authors are actually doing this, and if not, follow the reference chains so that later readers don’t have to.

    A related issue which sometimes arises is citations to review papers. It is fine to refer readers to Review Paper R, as readers are likely to be interested in papers cited therein. But if you are referring to a specific result, you should give credit to Reference S, the original research paper in which the result was obtained.

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