I took in this weekend’s news from Charlottesville, VA, and read about the vitriol from the white nationalist protesters. While not anywhere near the same level, I occasionally here from JGR Space Physics authors and reviewers that a piece of manuscript correspondence lacked professionalism. Sometimes I see comments in reviews and responses getting a bit too negative and personal, and ask them to be changed. More often, I don’t catch them and the offended person let’s me know about it after I have sent it on.
This is, I think, an excellent time to remind all of you: please be cordial in your correspondence. I want you to work hard on your reviews and responses, yielding the best science advancements that we can achieve, and that could include being critical of a manuscript or refuting a potential concern raised by a reviewer. We should not forget, though, to also be nice. I keep this sign on my shelf:
Yeah, that’s my office carpet. This is not a small request; I want everyone to take it seriously.
One example of this that I have seen a few times is a reviewer making inappropriate comments about poor English usage. Yes, you can and should point out a need to improve English usage in a manuscript, but please don’t berate or belittle the authors for it. On a related note, please don’t assume that the English-speaking authors did not read the paper if there are English usage errors in the manuscript. I occasionally see lines like “clearly, Dr. XYZ did not see the manuscript” or “the English-speaking authors should know better.” Please remember that the authors have to initial a box in GEMS stating that all authors agree to the submission and then all authors get an email about the submission, so the corresponding author cannot submit without all authors knowing about it. I think nearly all authors take this seriously and wait for input from all coauthors before submission. That is, the hostile reviewer is usually wrong about the involvement of the English-speaking coauthors. Plus, not all native English speakers are good writers; it’s a learned skill that takes many years of practice.
Let me tell you a personal story about this. Before assigning reviewers for a manuscript submission to JGR Space Physics, I always read a couple of randomly-chosen paragraphs to decide if I should be sending the manuscript back to the authors for English language improvement before peer review. This catches most of the manuscripts with pervasive grammar or spelling mistakes. If I am sending it back, I usually mark up the Abstract (maybe even more) to show the kind of changes needed throughout the paper. On one recent paper, I just kept going and copy-edited the entire thing. The authors implemented all of my changes and sent it back in, at which time I assigned reviewers and sent it out. Yeah, you guessed it: both reviewers commented on the need for significant English usage improvement in the paper! I looked and, sure enough, the reviewers were right (and they were cordial in their requests, if I am remembering correctly). I consider myself pretty good at English usage, yet the paper still needed improvement even after my “thorough” read-through and mark-up.
My point with this story is that manuscripts are relatively long documents (especially compared to this blog post or a typical email) and often require multiple readings to eliminate all English usage errors. Authors: please read through the text several times to minimize errors. Reviewers: please understand that even a conscientious reader who is adept at English grammar can miss numerous mistakes in a manuscript.
Another example that I want to mention involves correspondence with student authors. Reviewers, if you don’t recognize the first author’s name, a little investigative internetting will usually reveal the person’s job status or title. If the first author is a student, then please strive to be helpful, not hurtful, in the tone of your review. Students are learning the art of scholarly writing, but like English usage, this process takes years of practice to master. Similarly, some features of academic writing that come naturally to the seasoned researcher are subjective or even vaguely defined, and are therefore often not caught on the first read-through. I am willing to bet money that every academic adviser is working closely with all of their students to teach them our unique method of writing. Mistakes will get through to submission, though. Please use the opportunity to mentor that student and show this new member of our community that we know how to treat each other with respect and tactfully offer criticism to improve one another’s work.
There are many other examples that I could list, but let me just say that nuance and subtlety are sometimes lost in written correspondence. So, it is important to write very clearly to convey your meaning, while also maintaining professional courtesy. I am asking that you go through multiple drafts of your review or response text to make sure that the snippy or combative phrases are removed. The extra effort will be worth it. If you feel like venting, then please feel free to spout off in the “Notes to the Editor” text box.
Readers of such documents should also take a new view of text that they find offensive. I recently read the book Filter Shift by Sarah Taylor. Ms. Taylor is a management consultant specializing in effective leadership, a big part of which is getting people to talk nicely to each other. The book has an excellent recommendation related to this topic: assume positive intent. When you read something offensive, take a breath and think to yourself that the writer probably did not mean to make the text quite as bitter as you perceive it to be. Assuming positive intent helps you ignore your irritation about the delivery and reduce the comment to the nugget of change being requested.
In summary, please approach work correspondence, especially peer review with its one-way anonymity, with extra care and consideration about how the other person will perceive and interpret your written words. Leave the spiteful rhetoric (and tiki torches) behind.