Top 9 Writing Mistakes That Can Raise a Red Flag With Peer ReviewersNeeraja Sankaran, Ph.D. | 2017-03-13
Peer review is a daunting prospect. After all, you, or rather your ideas and words, are to be tried before a judge (usually the editor-in-chief) and an invisible jury—those anonymous peer reviewers—in what surely seems like a one-sided trial.
None of the rights of representation or speaking up in court that are accorded to a defendant in a court of law are available during the peer review process of journals. In the courtroom of academic publishing, your written words are your only defense. So, you want to make sure that they make a compelling case to the peer reviewers to deliver a favorable “Accepted” or at least a “Revise and Resubmit” verdict. For there are few things more disheartening to you, the researcher who has spent months laboring over a promising investigation and a further chunk of time writing the paper, than to hear that your manuscript has been rejected.
Having, at different times, played the role of both the defendant (author) and juror (reviewer) in the publishing process—certainly the former more than the latter—I have come to realize that there are a number of things that you as an author can do to avoid raising a red flag with peer reviewers to tip the verdict in your favor.
Of course, good science—data, evidence and conclusions—is essential if a paper is to be accepted. But even though a poorly written paper is often a warning against the quality of the content, the two do not necessarily go hand in hand. A good scientist may not be a brilliant wordsmith, especially if the author is an ESL (English-as-a-second language) author. Conversely, a brilliant writer might on the rare occasion cover up the lack of sound data or logic with words.
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Although I am not qualified to judge the scientific merits of any field but my own, I can offer insights into some of the issues about writing that ring alarm bells when I perform peer review of a paper, book, or thesis.
In the courtroom, where your words are your defense, the references you cite are your alibis and expert witnesses, bearing testimony to the veracity of your claims and buttressing the evidence you offer in support of your study. As a peer reviewer, the bibliography is one of the first things I look over (after the abstract) to help me set the paper in context. Here are some examples of bad citation practices that are likely to make a reviewer want to reject a paper:
1. A sparse bibliography or literature review
As I did in an earlier article about citation, I’ll turn to the immortal words of Isaac Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants to underscore the importance of acknowledging previous work in your field by performing a good literature review. A limited bibliography suggests a certain tunnel vision on your part, which reviewers will look poorly upon. Also, remember that the peer reviewers are experts in your field. So, even though you do not know which specialists will be asked to review your paper, you may be certain that if you have a sufficiently comprehensive bibliography, your reviewers will be in it. Such incidental flattery is sure to please.
2. An insufficient number of primary sources
A second, related problem regarding citations that is sure to raise suspicions is the lack of adequate primary sources. This error is perhaps more common among students working at the last minute on their papers and for whom online sources are often the beginning and end of research, but busy scientists are also susceptible to the lure of the well-documented literature review, especially for access to older work. Such secondary sources are great first stops to be sure, but do yourself a favor and go that extra mile to get the information from the proverbial horse’s mouth (or original source).
3. Too many dated references
I raise this issue because it certainly irritated me recently when the bibliography of a paper I reviewed in 2014 or 2015 had not one citation dated beyond the 1990s. Such a practice reveals the author’s tunnel vision and also suggests intellectual laziness. Neither characteristic is likely to inspire a reviewer or publisher to render a positive verdict for your scholarly paper.
4. Stacked bibliographies
A bibliography that is “stacked” with many citations of papers coming from a single laboratory or group has the effect of suggesting that an author is biased toward a certain point of view and, therefore, is not considering all sides of an argument. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, e.g., a paper in which you are critiquing a particular body of research or the work of a particular laboratory. But, such commentaries are less common, and in general, it is advisable to make sure that your literature review cites work from many sources to provide a balance of scientific views.
5. Self-referential bibliographies
On a related note, while it is tempting and even okay to cite your own work—or toot your own horn so to speak—you should do so judiciously and never exclusively. Always ensure that there is a larger proportion of references to the work of your peers and forbears.
Ultimately, it is the text of the paper itself that will determine whether it is accepted or not. Setting the intellectual merits of your study aside for a moment, here are examples of things to pay attention to as you write so that your prose works for you and peer reviewers judge you on the merits of the scientific content.
6. Promising more in your abstract than you deliver in the article
Many writers, myself included, begin a project with an abstract to serve as a sketch or roadmap during the actual process of writing. However, research projects often have a way of unexpectedly changing course, and the manuscript you end up with may not be quite what you initially envisioned. There’s no harm in that outcome, but you should take care to go back and rewrite your abstract. Go over the original version sentence by sentence to ensure that each issue is covered in the final abstract. If it is not, take the sentence out. Add what you need to accurately represent your paper.
7. Submission to an inappropriate journal or publisher
Sometimes a paper and journal are simply not right for one another. Before you submit a manuscript to a journal, be sure to go over its aims and scope (usually spelled out on the journal’s website) and determine if its a good match. For more info, you are encouraged to read the article: Choosing the Best Journal for Your Paper: Top 5 Recommendations.
8. A lack of clarity of expression
This is a simple rule, but one worth reiterating: Do not attempt to hide confused thinking or insufficient information with long words and sentences. Also avoid excessive jargon. Noise distracts but does not deceive.
9. Hiding behind quotes
Paradoxical as this warning may seem in light of my earlier litany of problems regarding inadequate citation, it is nevertheless true that too many quotes can be detrimental in a paper. The reason is that whereas a list of sources shows off your erudition and thoroughness as a reader and researcher, excessive quoting makes it seem like you do not have anything to say for yourself and therefore have to rely on someone else.
Quotations are good servants but bad masters. Use them to support what you are saying, but do not allow them to substitute for your own words. A good rule of thumb that I often give my students is to ensure that each quote is accompanied by anywhere from an equivalent amount to double or even a little more of your text in your own words in the form of foregrounding, analysis, and followup.
One last piece of advice:
Seldom, if ever, is a manuscript returned with an uncritical verdict of “Accepted.” Indeed, such a decision is not even desirable, for even the best effort can stand to be improved. Peer reviewers of peer reviewed journals, by and large, are experts who will have insights to improve your work. However, to reap the most benefit from their insights on issues that really matter, you can help yourself by reducing their “busy work” on matters that are better attended to by yourself.
Good luck with your next submission!
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About the Author:
Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Topics : Scientific Writing Peer review