On Responding to Prior Critique

The life of the academic scientist includes responding to criticism of their ideas, experimental techniques and results, interpretations and theoretical orientations*.

This comes up pointedly and formally in the submission of manuscripts for potential publication and in the submission of grant applications for potential funding.

There is an original submission, a return of detailed critical comments and an opportunity to respond to those critiques with revisions to the manuscript / grant application and/or argumentative rebuttal.

As I have said repeatedly in this forum, one of my most formative scientific mentors told me that you should take each and every comment seriously. Consider what is being said, why it is being said and try to respond accordingly. This mentor told me that I would usually find that by considering even the most idiotic seeming comments seriously, the manuscript (or grant application) is improved.

I have found this to be a universal truth of my professional work.

My understanding of what I was told by my mentor, versus what I have filled in additionally in my similar comments to my own trainees is now very fuzzy. I cannot remember exactly how extensively this mentor stamped down what is now my current understanding. For example, it is helpful to me to consider that Reviewer #3 represents about 33% of peers instead of thinking of this person as the rare outlier. I think that one may be my own formulation. Regardless of the relative contributions of my mentor versus my lived experience, it is all REALLY valuable advice that I have internalized.

The paper and grant review process is not there, by any means, to prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt** that the reviewer's position is correct and you are wrong. A reviewer that provides citations for a criticism is not by any means the majority of my experience...although you will see this occasionally. Even there, you could always engage cited statements from an antagonistic default setting. This is unwise.

The upshot of this critique-not-proof system means that as a professional, you have to be able to argue against yourself in proxy for the reviewer. This is why I say you need to consider each comment thoughtfully and try to imagine where it is coming from and what the person is really saying to you. Assume that they are acting in good faith instead of reflexively jumping behind paranoid suspicions that they are just out to get you for nefarious purposes.

This helps you to critically evaluate your own product.

Ultimately, you are the one that knows your product best, so you are the one in position to most thoroughly locate the flaws. In a lot of ways, nobody else can do that for you.

Professionalism demands that you do so.

*Not an exhaustive list.

**colloquially, they are leading you to water, not forcing you to drink.

3 responses so far

  • Grumble says:

    Good advice. Part of mentorship consists of explaining to students and post-docs what exactly a critique means: that it isn't (usually) personal, that it is important that someone who has read your work either didn't understand it or didn't find your argument watertight. A critique is an opportunity for improvement.

  • […] and try to imagine where it is coming from and what the person is really saying to you,” says DrugMonkey. “Assume that they are acting in good faith instead of reflexively jumping behind paranoid […]

  • Masked Avenger says:

    You can't get around a review, only thru.

    I honestly never had a problem getting a paper published, as long as I got a review.

    It's REALLY simple: Give the reviewer what they want. Either revise to address a valid point, or justify why you should not revise.

    In the case of a reviewer comment being flat out stupid, this means that you are not making your point clearly enough to be understood and thus, your manuscript needs to be revised for clarity sake.

    Never had a problem getting a paper published. Getting a paper WRITTEN is another issue.

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