Step 1: Accept that peer review is, ultimately, helpful
Over the decade or so years that I’ve been involved with scientific publishing, I have never had a paper that has not been significantly improved by peer review. Sure, not all reviews have been helpful, some have been wrong, and others have been downright inappropriate. But I cannot think of any case where reviewers’ comments haven’t, at least in some way, made the paper better. Yes, some rejections have been upsetting. One paper that comes to mind was rejected from a prestigious journal with one reviewer claiming that the entire study was fundamentally flawed. However, when preparing the manuscript for a new journal, we used the opportunity to address some of the key points behind the reviewer’s concerns. The resulting manuscript subsequently went through review easily and has become a highly cited paper. This, and other examples, have taught me to accept that with the right mindset, peer review inevitably improves the scientific process.
Step 2: Embrace the ability for reviewers to bring a fresh perspective to the work
By the time a manuscript has been submitted, most of the authors will have read, re-read, worked, and re-worked most aspects of the manuscript. At this point, it becomes quite difficult to ‘see the manuscript’. Reviewers bring fresh eyes: they (usually) had no prior idea that the study was underway, and have no background about the specific work that happened or have attachment to any key part (e.g. a favourite passage that the authors worked hard on and are unwilling to let go of). Sometimes our attachment, and refusal to let go of, a given idea, approach, or viewpoint can make our work suboptimal. Reviewer comments can help to identify and encourage letting go of some of the deadwood in a manuscript.
Step 3: See peer reviewers as representatives of the readership
We should hope that the reviewers of a study are not going to be the only readers of the final paper. However, on average, we can expect that of the many other potential readers out there, many will be at least as critical as the reviewers. At the very least, the readership is unlikely to invest as much time to understand more technical parts of the work, which might limit their understanding and, therefore, make them more likely to miss its main contribution or strengths. In other words, they could be less likely to gain a positive impression of the work. I see peer review as the best way to help the chances of your work making positive impressions on readers. It is also for this reason that it is often encouraged to send manuscripts beyond the authorship list and/or lab for comments prior to submission, as sometimes even minor changes to wording can help improve clarity to the uninformed reader.
Step 4: Take peer review as a window into the reader’s mind
The most useful part of peer review is that allows you to gain insight into the mind of the average reader of your manuscript. I find it helpful to see reviewer’s comments as representing the thoughts they had while reading the work. Often, when I review studies myself, I note that some comments reflect the things that popped into my mind while reading. Sometimes my comments or questions are addressed later in the manuscript, but by pointing out to the authors when these points first came to mind can help them to optimise the order in which they present their ideas, information, or concepts. So: avoid getting frustrated with thoughts like ‘the reviewer just doesn’t get it’, and instead use their comments to gain insight into the thought process that takes place as they navigate their way through the manuscript.
Step 5: Forgive your referee, and any of their limitations
With very few exceptions, peer reviewers mean well, but their comments can sometimes seem brutal. Most of the time, this comes from reviewers juggling many things at the same time; trying to squeeze the review between picking up the kids, making dinner, submitting their own paper, and so on. I know that I am guilty of this myself; recently I critiqued a manuscript for providing indirect insights into a research area rich in direct empirical evidence and failed to provide any example citations! I had re-read (I always try to) my review for tone and to edit out what I could catch as being too strongly-worded comments. However, it is sometimes difficult to spot flaws in our own writing that stands out immediately to other readers. This is why we try get our manuscripts proof-read by others, but it is rather rare for reviewers to have the luxury of having their reviews proof-read by others. Yes, it is not ideal that wording can sound direct, that well-intentioned critiques can come across as harsh criticisms, or that comments are less helpful than they could be, but it is unlikely that the reviewer intended it this way.
Step 6: Drop the idea that enemies are out to get you
It probably doesn’t take long in a researcher’s career before they hear nightmare stories of papers being sent to be reviewed by enemies of the lab and being rejected without any clear reason. While many of these stories are probably true, they also represent the tiniest fraction of work that is peer reviewed. Receiving a negative review is not a sign of having an enemy in the field. Sure, some researchers in your field will like your work more (or have a stronger personal connection with your work) than others will, but there is usually nothing to be gained by worrying about these things. And yes, there are some situations where two labs compete by working on very closely-overlapping questions or systems (this is more common in some fields than others), or one PI who attempts to dominate an area by shutting down others’ work, but there most journals have clear protocols to deal with such situations.
Step 7: Don’t over-interpret the situation
When receiving a rejection letter, the first thing that comes to mind is to try identify who is responsible. While sometimes this is possible, it is actually much more likely that (at best) you’ll be wrong, and (at worst) find yourself bearing a grudge against someone who is completely innocent. As an editor, I have seen authors kick back on decisions about their manuscripts and spectacularly misinterpreting who the reviewers were. Ultimately, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to read too much into a set of reviewer comments. It is always much better to focus that time and mental energy into improving the manuscript.
Step 8: Realise that rejection is normal
Almost every paper that is published has been rejected at least once. Many journals have acceptance rates well below 30% of submissions, or much lower. Many funding agencies are now funding grant applications at rates below 10% of all applicants. A positive move in recent years has been to publicly acknowledge rejections as a means of normalising it. For example, Twitter has many examples of rejections (search for the hashtag #rejectionIsTheRule), and many researchers are now making their CV of failures available alongside the CV listing their successes. It is fine to be upset by rejection—that’s a very normal human response—but there is no reason to translate disappointment into the believe that you are a failure.
Step 9: Avoid seeing rejection as a flaw of Science
There are seemingly more and more cries about Science being ‘broken’. (Perhaps this has always been the case and I’ve just not been around long enough to see it). Yes, things could be much better. The world is full of very gifted researchers and funding rates are at an all-time low, meaning that many very good scientific papers and proposals are rejected each and every day. However, across all domains there is intense competition for jobs and other highly-valued positions (see this tweet for just one perspective). I’ve found it particularly insightful to discuss my working life with journalists and artists, as there are many parallels across other fields where products (articles, art works, scientific grants and publications) go through a competitive evaluation process and many are not funded/not accepted. There are well-documented issues with biases in peer review, which is clearly to the detriment of Scientific advancement, and many journals are taking active steps to reduce the impact of these biases (e.g. double-blind peer review, open peer reviewer, and—my favourite—having the reviewers evaluate each other’s reviews before the editor submits their decision).
Step 10: Keep trying!
At the end of the day, the best predictor of success is to keep trying. Sometimes it can take a few days to get over a rejection letter, and that’s totally fine. However, casting feelings of failure aside and approaching reviewers’ comments with a positive perspective—addressing these comments will improve my work—is the best way to make setbacks temporary. Going through the whole process several times will help with this (it takes first-hand experience to reach Step 1). Finally, keeping a positive mindset will also help you to make the most of reviewer comments, which will be the topic of the second post in this series.