What reviewers (don’t) like

Posted by GIOVANNA MICHELON - Apr 15, 2018

This is a very brief blog to highlight three things reviewers generally don’t really like.

Before I get there, let me recap briefly what generally determines the quality of a paper:

  1. the relevance and novelty (i.e. contribution) of the underlying research question,
  2. the appropriateness of the methodological approach,
  3. the rigour and robustness of the research design and
  4. the implications of the findings for a variety of stakeholders, whether it is academics, regulators, practitioners or others.

However, quite often we forget or underestimate that writing a good paper is more of an art than a science. This means that both the content and the packaging of the paper have an important role in determining its quality and appeal. By packaging, I refer to the writing style and editing of the paper.

Before submitting (and assuming you have taken care of the 4 key elements above that determine the quality of the content), make sure that you spend some time reading your paper with the following in mind.

  • Reviewers do not like “being misled”. Make sure you do what you claim you do and do not over-state your contribution and set very high expectations which your findings cannot meet. Doing so is risky for two reasons. One is to upset the reviewers, which is generally not a good thing to do. The other is that you may prompt reviewers to ask you to do something that you cannot deliver. This is likely to harm your chances of getting your paper published in that journal, so being honest about the strengths and weaknesses of your work is the best strategy. 
  • Reviewers do not like “feeling stupid”. This means that it is your duty to be as clear as possible. Reviewers’ time is a very scarce resource and editors spend a lot of time finding good and willing scholars that generously give time to review papers. It is also likely that reviewers have relatively little time to review your paper, so clarity is imperative to make sure the reviewer can follow your arguments, and understand fully the development of the research. In Economical Writing, Donald (now Dierdre) McCloskey notes that ‘Be thou clear’ is the one genuine rule of writing, noting that “If [the reader] thinks something you write is unclear, then it is, by definition.”
  • Finally, reviewers do not like “getting lost”. Very related to the “feeling stupid” sensation, papers that tackle complex problems need nevertheless to show a clear path and set out a logical sequence of arguments. Clarity, as mentioned above is key, but complex issues require that your writing is consistent. Be consistent throughout the paper and take the reader with you on the journey! Consistency may lead to be a bit manic about details, and while perfection is always an impossible endeavour, being inspired by this ideal can lead to improved outcomes. 

Writing needs practice, like any other skill it needs to be developed with patience and perseverance. And this is even more true if you are non-native English speaker, like me. One useful exercise is to read papers with the specific aim of analysing the writing style, the structure and layout and the linguistic tools that are being used. Although I have made some progress and most of my sentences seem to be actually written in English rather than being translated from Italian to English, I still always make sure I get my papers professionally edited and proof-read (by friends, colleagues or – when possible – co-authors who are English native speakers). For more writing tips, you can refer to the presentation posted by Mark Clatworthy in our Repository.

… and don’t forget: before reviewers come editors. Editors are picky (and rightly so!) about the “presentation” of a paper, and if the paper/writing is not correct, that’s enough to give them a reason to reject the paper without sending it out to reviewers. Editors do like when your paper fits in with the debate the journal has been publishing, the writing style is aligned with that of the Journal, and when your cover letter is useful (see here the contribution by EAR editor, Prof Hervé Stolowy, on the importance of the cover letter, published in the EAA newsletter).

All in all, a poorly written paper will not get the credit it may deserve, but there is nobody else to blame than ourselves!! Editing, polishing, polishing (and polishing some more!) help avoiding that reviewers feel stupid or get lost, and this is generally a good start.