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Seven Ways to Prepare for Reviewer #2 Before You Submit a Research Paper: Part One of Two

Introduction: Control What You Can


Writing is one of the hardest but most satisfying emotional and intellectual endeavors that any thinker can take upon themselves. In the research world of academia, writing is also the path to making an impact on the scholarly community (and how to get and keep a job!).


Making it through the gatekeeper (in academia, reviewers) is a tough but necessary part of the publishing process. And getting through the review stage and having your manuscript accepted clearly isn't an easy feat as nearly 90% of manuscript submissions are rejected from leading journals.

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In my academic research career, I had the good fortunate of being an author in over a dozen manuscripts that became published academic articles in peer-reviewed journals. Over the years that it took to get those papers through the writing and review process, I began to see patterns in various reviewers’ complaints.


But before I get to those specific complaints and my recommendations on what to do to avoid having your manuscript rejected, I want to point out that when are you nearing the submission phase of writing a manuscript most aspects of the paper are basically determined and now out of your control.


These (relatively) unchangeable details might include:

  • The sample

  • The findings

  • The implications of those findings

You can't change the core aspects of your paper without starting over - and sometimes starting over is the right choice. But that's not the focus of today's blog post.


The focus of today's blog post is on what you can control prior to submission.


You can control the way the paper is written - both the technical aspects of writing as well as the "narrative" of the manuscript (aka the way the information is presented to the reader).


So here are my tips on how to disarm Reviewer #2 and avoid rejection. I've categorizes the tips into two different parts:

  • The Technique of Writing (Three Tips to Avoid Rejection) - this blog post!

  • The Presentation of Ideas (Four Ways to Make Your Paper Compelling) - our next blog post!

Part One: The Technique of Writing (Three Tips to Avoid Rejection)


The way a paper is written will ultimately determine how readers interpret it. The easier your paper is to understand, the better received it will be.


Here are three easy ways to ensure your writing is understood and .


1. Don’t submit a research paper with typos and grammatical errors - just don't due it.


Nobody likes reading writing that contains errors. Especially Reviewer 2.


Yet many, many papers submitted to scientific journals contains typos and grammatical errors.


In my experience reviewing papers for journals, somewhere between 25-50% of them simply just weren't ready for submission yet. And this is not even including the papers that were desk-rejected by the watchful editor who was looking to preserve the energy of their reviewers.

This means that if your paper is typo-free, it will stand out from the majority of submissions.

Think about that for a second. One final "printed-out-red-pen-in-hand" read-through of your paper could shift you from the bottom 50% to the top 50%. That's something.


If you do submit a poorly written paper full of typos, do not expect polished feedback on your idea in return. It simply won’t happen.


Why? Because the brain searches for the easiest path out of a problem.


If the lowest hanging fruit for critique is the fact that you didn’t proof-read your paper very well, then that’s exactly the kind of low-level insight that reviewers will provide you. And they won’t use kind words and helpful examples.


They’ll likely simply think "the writing was poor so the idea must be too" and then they will wrap up their review quickly jotting down enough criticism so as to justify their newly found opinion and move on with their life to more important things.

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And technically, they will have served their duty as the reviewer of your paper. Better luck next time.


And don't just take my word for it. A review of over 400 rejected scientific papers ranked poor writing near the top of reasons for rejection along with bad methodology, lack of compelling results, and weak statistics.


Reviewers are human - humans don't like typos. Don't submit writing with typos. Give that paper a second (or third or fourth) look before submission.


My rule of thumb was to reread my entire paper (printed out with a red pen in-hand) if I found one typo. And I'm not the most error-free writer, so often times I'd print out my manuscript 3-5 times before I'd read through it once without finding a single needed change.


You may not need to do something so drastic but trust me when I say reviewers do not like typos.


Eliminating typos reduces reviewers' negative perceptions of your paper.


2. Use subheadings - and use them for the benefit of the reader.


Reviewers want to understand your paper. Help them do that by providing them with a structure to follow. That structure is subheadings.


This piece of feedback always seemed to elicit a groan of annoyance whenever a grad student would ask me for feedback on a paper. I know everyone (including myself) feels that their introduction section is so well-crafted that it warrants only top-level headings every few pages. Subheadings often seem redundant.


And yes - if every reader did put 30-45 minutes of absolutely quiet reading time into your manuscript, then they may not need the mental training wheels that are subheadings. But reality is often a bit more chaotic than you might imagine.


Think about this scenario:


You read the first few pages of a new manuscript you were asked to review and get an important email halfway through the literature review. You stop to respond. You come back to the paper without remembering where you left off.


You know the last thing you read was about child parenting practices and discipline methods but the literature review doesn't have subheadings that show you where that specific section started.


You read another half-page and your child interrupts you with a seemingly life-altering revelation. Actually, it was nothing but now your heart is racing. You turn back to the manuscript without any idea of where you left off. You try to retain your enthusiasm for doing this "service to the profession" for which you are not paid.


While writing your review for the editor, you remember that a certain section that had lacked a needed citation. How do you find that section again? You know it was about child parenting practices and parental income but there is five pages of literature review on parenting practices and none of it has sublabels.


Instead of reading the whole thing again, you simply write “the introduction lacked important citations about parenting and parental income,” which you know will be of little use to the author but you’re at a loss as to find that specific part of the article again.


After all, you are not paid for your reviews and don’t have the time to reread that section. You still have to grade all those papers from class - something that you actually ARE getting paid to do.


You ponder the possibility that there might be other statements needing citations that you might have missed and consider changing your recommendation from R&R to reject. You don’t want your journal readers to be exposed to definite statements that are not backed by evidence.


Reviewers (and, later, your end readers) are human. It's best to treat them as such. Most reviewers actually really want to understand your writing - so assist them in their journey.

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You can lead reviewer through your paper (and thus, your ideas) using guardrails to prevent them from falling off the ledge and into confusion. These guardrails are subheadings.

Use subheadings and use them to help your reader.

Structuring your paper with subheadings will increase your own ability to see the top-level outline of your paper and understand how to guide readers’ eyes and minds through your thought-process. Subheadings can also reveal where your paper has lost its way in the story-arch.


Some general guidelines on using subheadings:

  • Subheadings are most often used well in the sections that demand obvious structure (i.e., methods, results) and are typically left out (to the detriment of the reader) in the introduction and discussion sections. Look at your introduction and discussion and ask yourself "Is there a structuring of ideas in the writing of these sections that isn't readily apparent from the headings/subheadings that I am using?"

  • If you have 4-5 strong paragraphs in a row without subheading, you are probably losing readers to the attrition of attention. If you go over a page or two without using a subheading, your readers will likely at some point slip into the abyss of confusion (after some distraction averts their attention) due to lack of guardrails for them to catch. A subheading for every two to three paragraphs (about one per typed page or every other page) is usually about right though your milage will vary based on the type of manuscript and field you are in. PS: I'm in the social sciences and primarily write quantitative research articles.

  • Try not to use a subheading for a single paragraph. Sometimes it can be appropriate (such as a paragraph detailing the study's research questions right before the methods section), but this is rare in my opinion.

  • Subheadings can be titled something as simple as “Variable X and Variable Y.” Just tell them what the next few paragraphs are about. Note how simple the subheadings of this blog post are. You know exactly what I'm going to talk about in every section. Simple is best.

  • Lastly, your headings and subheadings should tell the entire overarching story of the paper much like highway and street signs tell the story of the road system. If you can't see every important point in the story of your paper highlighted by a heading or subheading, neither can your reader! And they will get lost in places you won't (because you already know your paper - they don't).

Using subheadings prevents reviewers from getting lost in your paper.


3. Use few abbreviations and acronyms - using only one is the GOAT move.


I know that it feels efficient to abbreviate every cumbersome, technical word or phrase down to 2-3 capitalized letters but reviewers really only have the capacity to remember one or two such abbreviations or acronyms.


Remember: Reviewers are human.

Here’s a rule of thumb: Only abbreviate words and phrases that are so important that they appear in the title.

By limiting your acronym usage to only what appears in the title, your reader will have a very easy way of figuring out what the acronym actually means after they take a break to discharge some coffee - and then again after their mind is wiped by the dean "just passing by" - and then again after a troublesome undergrad student stops by unscheduled.


Again, even reviewers - most of whom are professors - are human. Help them follow your writing by limiting the amount of brain power that has to get used to consume your manuscript.

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If you are in a truly niche technical field, maybe two or three acronyms are appropriate. But in my experience as a reviewer, I find many papers where I stop myself to say "God, what do all these acronyms stand for again?" about halfway through the paper (which elicits feelings of frustration which likely clouds my judgement - I am human after all).


Very, very rarely have I ever said "Man, this paper would have benefitted from more acronyms."


Most authors use acronyms for their own benefit (i.e., getting word count down, being able to write sections quicker) and NOT for the benefit of the reviewer (and, eventually, the reader). Think on that when including acronyms - who does this usage of this abbreviation or acronym benefit? The author or the reader?


Limiting abbreviations and acronyms prevents reviewers from forgetting what they stand for.


Conclusion


You too can defeat Reviewer #2, and ironically this is best done by remember that all reviewers are human. They need help understanding your paper.


Again, here are the three easy tips for ensuring your pre-submission manuscript has the best chance of success:

  • Double- and triple-check for typos - reviewers get bothered by typos

  • Use subheadings - reviewers want to be able to follow your train of thought

  • Limit acronyms and abbreviations - reviewers can really only remember one or two

If you appreciated this blog post and don't want to miss Part 2 (coming out next week!), I suggest you sign up for email alerts which you can do here (scroll down to the bottom of the home page for the email submit form). Also, feel free to check out this blog post which has other tips on academic writing.


Until next time, cheers!

-Matt




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