Health Services Research & Policy ■ Clinical Practice Management ■ Training & Education ■ Leadership
Health Services Research & Policy ■ Clinical Practice Management ■ Training & Education ■ Leadership
Health Services Research & Policy
■ Clinical Practice Management
■ Training & Education ■ Leadership

Scholarly Journal Manuscript Submissions: A Peer Reviewer's Manifesto/Plea/Perspective

Satirical wisdom from a comic strip can help you get your scholarly manuscript published.

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strips appeared in newspapers on Feb. 11, 1993.

We can learn a lot from Calvin, the spiky-haired first-grade boy, self-appointed president of G.R.O.S.S. [Get Rid of Slimy girlS], builder of mutant snowman army, and real-time inventor of games-with-only-a-marginal-resemblance-to-baseball, with a vivid (that's putting it mildly) imagination, disdain for the tyranny of elementary school, rudimentary math skills, scant self-insight, and encyclopedic knowledge (and table manners) of dinosaurs, but a vocabulary that Herman Melville would envy. We can also gain some serious wisdom from his stuffed tiger-cum-best friend, Hobbes, introspective partner-in-crime, equally lousy at math, but far more real than the Velveteen Rabbit could ever dare to dream of being.

In this particular comic, Calvin realizes he doesn't have to write well, just possess a slick veneer of appearing to write well by using a string of polysyllabic words. He believes he can successfully deceive his way to never-before-achieved homework glory. Boy, will his teacher Miss Wormwood be impressed (though none the wiser he thinks)! Although the comic's creator, Bill Watterson, reportedly had art criticism in mind when writing this particular strip, other forms of academic writing are also a fair target for his withering satire. In academia, the imperative is not to write well, but rather to "publish or perish," to write often (and be published often).

As someone who reviews submissions to an academic publication, here is my fondest wish: If you write, learn to write well. Does writing well mean elegant prose worthy of a National Book Award? Heck no. You are reading about Calvin and Hobbes in a blog associated with JACR, are you not? I certainly don't consider myself a strong creative writer (but I am practicing more lately). I like scientific research writing, the kind of writing that most scholarly medical journals are full of. In particular, I like reading and editing scientific writing, critiquing and providing constructive suggestions for improvements, which is to say that I really enjoy scholarly manuscript peer reviewing. 

Just write well enough to help the peer reviewers easily understand your work and your thinking so they can respond with constructive comments to make your manuscript publication-worthy. Journals want to publish your work. Editors and publishers want to deliver content to readers, especially subscribers. To accomplish this, avoid two things: unnecessarily complicated phrasing and sloppy writing . 

As Calvin so eloquently demonstrated, it's not particularly hard to write prose that sounds intelligent and keeps readers at arm's length. What's difficult (and where the real purpose of writing lies) is producing succinct writing that clearly speaks to the reader and conveys your ideas. 

Sloppy writing is another culprit in distancing readers from the ideas in your writing. If you are an author, please proofread. If you have co-authors, have them proofread. If you don't, peer reviewers can tell (and that makes us less likely to respond to your paper favorably) and your ideas may not even make it to journal readers. When authors submit sloppy work, reviewers must wrestle with a tangled mess to provide substantive and constructive comments, making rejection more likely.

Will my pleas be enough to prevent poorly written work from being published? Unlikely. Look no further than predatory open-access journals where, for a fee, even computer software–generated gibberish can be accepted for publication, proving that you can literally have anything published.

Don't be like Calvin. If your ideas are weak to begin with, there is no lipstick that will make that pig prettier, so don't press the send button on the manuscript submission website. Otherwise, before you submit your work, express your ideas strongly but without inflation, use sound logical reasoning, and be clear. Of course, check your spelling and grammar. Thanks from a peer reviewer and lover of scientific writing.

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Sunday, 24 September 2017

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