So today I’ve been making some revisions on a paper we have been struggling to publish for over a year. Granted it’s been a low priority publication and the student who did the work is long-gone, but still, its not too bad. What struck me about the last round of reviews is that it was sent to ONE reviewer, who proceeded to write a five page critique with more than eighty, specific comments. Typically papers go out to two or three reviewers, each with a handful of major comments and a few minor ones. So I didn’t know what to do with eighty comments. Mind you this was also not a particularly high-caliber journal, to put it generously. The comments ranged from the petty: “I can’t find reference X, could you cite something newer?”, or “I don’t like your axis labels in figure 2B”; to the somewhat useful: “statistical test X would be more appropriate that statistical test Y”; to ones which to me bring up a grey area in terms of what to do with them, and that if I were to follow them I think the paper would be worse off. These usually have to do with writing style.
Most scientific papers follow the same basic organization: summary, introduction, methods, results and discussion. But how one treats these sections varies a lot from person to person. In my view, the most straightforward approach is also the most dogmatic and makes for some pretty dry, snooze-inducing reading. In this approach, after your introduction, the results are basically a pure description of the experimental findings, with no room for interpretation or background, these are saved for the discussion and introduction. The results become a list of findings to be discussed later in the paper. In a second approach, which is the one I take, I split the results into sections describing the different experiments. Then for each subsection I first describe the rationale for the experiment, with a citation or two if needed and recapitulate briefly the method to be used. This may sometimes spell out expected outcomes as in “if such a hypothesis is true, we would expect that this and that would be observed when we manipulate these other things.” Then I go through the actual findings. Finally, at the end of each subsection I summarize the interpretation of the data as in “the results from this experiment suggest that blah, blah, blah.” This helps the reader understand not only why you did the experiment you just did, but also how you interpret it, and facilitates the transition to the next logical experiment. In this way you hold the reader’s hand through the results and build your conclusion as you go along, adding helpful bits of interpretation. Then in the discussion, you summarize your findings and their interpretation and go on to discuss the larger context of your study. I find that this type of results section makes for much easier reading and better flow.
Now back to the reviewer with the eight-hundred comments. In many of the comments he or she kept saying “this line belongs in the discussion” or “move this to the methods”. In other words “please make this paper so dry and boring so that my ego can be stroked and my terse writing style will prevail”. They must have made about fifteen or so of these types of comment. And here is the crux of the dilemma, is it worth bowing to a reviewer’s demand which you know will make your paper worse? Are stylistic comments valid criticisms? As for me, we’re not sending the paper back to that crazy journal, so I’m just going to ignore the comments, its not even worth trying to address them all. How about you, reader, what do you do in this situation?