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Seven Tips to Get You Through Peer Review


(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

By Stephen D. Senturia

One from the gates towards the Harvard Yard carries the inscription, \”Enter to develop in Wisdom.\” The related gate to Success in Academia is inscribed: \”Publish or Perish.\” If you don\’t have been lucky enough to turn your PhD Thesis right into a best-selling book, your main pathway to publishing may be the peer-reviewed journal. I spent seventeen years as co-editor of two different journals, and also over the years, I developed the next guidelines for navigating the shoals from the review process:

1. (Almost) Nothing is New.

When I would supervise a graduate student, I\’d tell her to \”figure out what you have done, go to the library and discover it.\” Things i meant, obviously, is that all scientific studies are built on the work of others, and that a contributor is obligated to identify and discuss the appropriate previous literature.

–?Cite the appropriate literature inside your introduction, and, most significant, return at the end of your manuscript to relate your projects to what has gone before. Failure to close this loop ranks presents itself the list of author sins.

–?If you have written a related but not-yet-published journal or conference paper, submit a duplicate to the journal editor together with your manuscript. Failure to do so can, when the editor discovers the omission, provide an automatic rejection of your paper.

2. The Believability Index.

Inexperienced authors usually have difficulty outlining their papers. I recommend using the \”Believability Index.\” Several things, like Newton\’s Laws of Motion, are well established. Other things, like your speculative interpretation of the data, might produce disagreements in readers. You should assign a diploma of \”Believability\” to every component of your paper: the backdrop, the research methods, data reduction, experimental results, theoretical models and interpretations. Then, write the paper within the order of decreasing Believability. The reviewer will naturally agree with you as much as the first thing that they or she might question, but when all of your higher-believability material is already presented, the point of disagreement can be crisply identified. This greatly smooths the review process.

3. No Gambling Words.

If you find yourself trying to emphasize the \”likelihood\” that a certain result ought to be interpreted a certain way, a bell should off in your head. You are gambling. Words like \”certainly,\” \”probably,\” and \”undoubtedly\” don\’t have any place in proper reports of research. Either you know, or you are speculating. Gambling words don\’t improve the strength of the argument.? Quite the opposite. They make astute reviewers suspicious.

4. You shouldn\’t be a Longfellow.

While Longfellow was liberated to tell one fireside story to another at the Wayside Inn, you are not so entitled. Some authors like to present an effect, then tell a tale, present another result, another story, and so forth. This is bad writing since it puts low believability material (the first story) ahead of what ought to be a higher believability item, the 2nd result. Reviewers have a difficult time collating multiple stories when they\’re mixed in with results.

5. No Rabbits from Hats.

Some authors prefer to present many of their results, give their interpretative story, and, to reinforce the presumed correctness of the interpretation, present the last result, not previously anticipated, that\’s supposed to clinch the story. Such surprises will make for good theater, but it wastes the reviewer\’s time in trying to digest the interpretation with no benefit of all the relevant results. Respect the reviewer\’s time. Help make your case efficiently, without theatrics.

6. Mine All the Gold.

Imagine that you are a prospector. You find a few nuggets of gold, rush to file for your claim, after which abandon it. Of course, you wouldn\’t do that. You\’d go back to mine the gold. But you would be surprised at how many authors neglect to dig all the information out of hard-won data, being happy to present several nuggets and move ahead. It is unlikely that the reviewer will criticize a paper that doesn\’t extract all the information obtainable in a set of results, but demonstrating a willingness to dig deeply constitutes a reviewer happy. As long as you follow the Believability Index, you are able to speculate about what some twinkle within the data might mean toward the end of your paper. If you go too far overboard, the reviewer may reel you in, but it\’s worth trying.

7. Reviewers are Inarticulate and Authors are (Somewhat) Paranoid.

Reviewers are volunteers. Their time matters. They don\’t always read papers using the care you might hope for, and often their comments are inarticulate. But, in my experience and in spite from the paranoia of some authors, they are rarely to get you. When they criticize a paper, they have a reason. The reason might be with different misunderstanding from the subject matter, as well as the reviewer, it is still a reason.

Ego is the enemy here. All too often, I have seen authors respond by railing from the ignorance of a reviewer rather than devoting that very same amount of energy to (a) figuring out why the reviewer might, in good faith, have objected, and (b) finding a competent way to repair it, possibly by changing something earlier within the paper, or re-ordering material to create the Believability Index into proper alignment. With a good job of responding to those criticisms for which you can comprehend the basis, you\’re more likely to obtain a pass from the editor for disagreeing with those that are clearly wrong.


Writing good papers is a learnable skill, and following a Believability Index can be a useful help guide to helping you develop that skill. I have written a far more detailed account of these ideas in a paper entitled, \”How to Avoid the Reviewer\’s Axe.\” It is available at?www.stephendsenturia.com/articles. And I would love to hear your stories about peer review. Send me a note atwww.stephendsenturia.com/contact.


Stephen D. Senturia is really a former Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he spent 36 years teaching a large number of students and mentoring a large number of colleagues trying to get tenure. Learn more about Senturia at:?www.stephendsenturia.com.

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