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Coffee Time Science: On Reviewing Manuscripts

2nd March 2015
By Guest Author

How would you want your manuscript to be reviewed?

One of our PhD students just got his first set of reviewer comments back. As in, his first ever. He’s upset. My advice to him is the same I give to myself: Walk away for a day. Close the email, go home, relax. Come back tomorrow and re-read the email. Then you start addressing the comments that are fair/relevant/easily addressed. Wait one more day to address the harder ones. I sympathize. Welcome to science, I think to myself.

I mention this to Katja and Narges over coffee and we deliberate on the subject of reviewing papers. It’s amazing to think that something so essential to science and to our careers has no formal guidelines that govern how to judge someone else’s work. Basically, every reviewer does it differently. “What’s your strategy?” Katja inquires. Narges approaches it like a journal club presentation: “I look at the figures and legends first and see if I can figure out what the manuscript is about just based on that. That way I am not influenced by what the authors have written. Then I see if their story makes sense”.

I reflect on that while I sip at my coffee. I realize I focus less on the story, and more on the technical details. I read the title and the abstract and decide if I am in a position to judge the work. Do I know the subject matter? Am I familiar with the techniques they used? Will I be able to judge if their work is a significant contribution to the field? If the answer is yes, I continue. I never pay attention to the author names. I’m terrible with names in general, but in this case, I purposefully don’t take them in. I don’t want to judge this paper based on what names are (or are not) on it. I pay close attention to the methods section. Are they using cell lines, primary cells, or animal models? Do they use complementary techniques? Do they have a basic understanding of statistics? Once I know what I’m dealing with, I print out the figures, and as I read the results section, I check the corresponding figures. Did they include the right controls? Did they fail to do an obvious experiment? Are there gaps in their arguments? Are they over-interpreting? This is the crux of it: Do the data shown support the statements made?

At this point, my mind is already about 80% made up. I also review the language. I do not correct the style – that is not for me to judge. What I do pay attention to is grammar and spelling, and also to whether the manuscript is written coherently. For the most part, my comments are concise and clear; I list the things that I think need addressing or clarification, and in some cases, what experiments I feel are necessary. That’s my recipe. What’s yours?

Christine palmerAbout me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here

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