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

The Deadly Sins of Writing for Publication – Part II: Two of My Favorite Sins – Sloth and Hubris

Would-be published authors take note: laziness and a lack of humility won't win you any points with peer reviewers and editors.

In my previous post, I promised that I would address problems in writing for publication that I frequently encounter as Editor-in-Chief of JACR. Among the most common and severe are the sins of sloth and hubris. 

The Sin of Sloth

The soul of the sluggard desires but has nothing, but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat.Proverbs 13:4

I have a tendency to toil over a manuscript beyond what many would consider necessary to achieve an acceptable result — writing, editing, re-writing, and editing again. I believe this process results in a better manuscript. Thus, I am jealous of those who find shortcuts to attain comparable quality with less exertion. Unfortunately, in my experience, relatively few authors have developed the level of skill necessary to pull this off. For the most part, less effort produces manuscripts that are less interesting, less readable, and less impactful than might have resulted from greater diligence.

Two of the more common manifestations of sloth that cross my desk are as follows: 

  •  Inappropriate reliance on spell check, grammar check, and other editorial software 
  •  Drawing conclusions beyond what the data allow
The following example of how foolish reliance on editorial software can lead to embarrassing results really happened. Indeed, I was the perpetrator. I failed to edit the text of an email I sent to a group of researchers, resulting in something similar to the following going out to nine recipients:

"Research subjects sexually displayed hyperactivity while undergoing deep brain stimulation."

I am embarrassed less because my email read "sexually" when what I meant was "actually" — an auto-correct lapsis calamum that drew a good electronic laugh —but because the error evidenced my laziness in not hand-editing the email before I sent it. The moral of the story is that authors should thoroughly hand-edit all elements of what they've written before exposing it to public scrutiny. I can easily spot manuscripts for which the authors have failed to do so, often within the first few sentences. Recognition of this omission heightens my alert for other evidence of laziness throughout my review of the manuscript.
A common example of lazy thinking is mistaking an association among variables as indicative of causation. Most often, this is a result of authors instructing a computer to identify all associations reaching a certain level of statistical significance, then indiscriminately reporting them as having greater importance than warranted. The following example is whimsical, so as to protect the guilty, but is representative of the kind of lazy thinking that I occasionally encounter in reviewing submitted manuscripts:

"Our results show that individuals possessing a mesomorphic habitus more frequently have hairy knuckles than those with other body types. It has been previously reported that such individuals tend to scrape their knuckles on the ground as they walk. Our findings are the first to definitively prove that mesomorphic locomotion is the cause of hirsute knuckles." (For more on the assertion of priority, see the sin of hubris, below.) 

The data allow no such assertion. Meaningless associations among data elements occur frequently, sometimes on an entirely random basis.
The Sin of Hubris

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.— Proverbs 16:18 

The following are among evidences of hubris, or pride, in manuscript writing, but by no means constitute a comprehensive list:

  • Asserting priority, uniqueness, or novelty  
  • Asserting correctness in the face of contradicting previous research without convincing evidence 
  • Unexplained and/or inappropriate refusal to make reviewer- or editor-suggested modifications to improve the manuscript

In my editing of manuscripts submitted to JACR, I try to be particularly alert to claims of being the first to report a phenomenon. While occasionally the claim may reflect reality, far too often the assertion proves to be false, the result of halfhearted or wishful investigation of the previous literature.

More egregious are authors' failures to adequately adjudicate disparities in data or disagreements with reviewers. In such cases, authors often take on a disputatious tone that can be a death knell for work that otherwise might have eventually achieved publication. The following fictional example of a letter responding to an editor's requests for modifications of a manuscript is an extreme case but not far off from actual letters that I have received:

Dear Editor: 

We appreciate the reviewers' many suggestions for "improvements'"to our manuscript. Unfortunately, they appear to be little more than the witless maunderings of a pathetically medieval weenie. The foregoing fully explains our rationale for returning the manuscript without alteration. We trust you will agree with our perspective and proceed to publication without further delay. 
With sincere wishes that you enjoy a pleasant day,

The Authors 

A pleasant day, indeed.
The third post in this series will consider the sins of verbosity and poor writing. The series will conclude with a brief discussion of common ethical lapses among authors seeking publication. 

Read More




By Bruce J. Hillman, MD, FACR, JACR ®Editor-in-Chief, from the departments of radiology and medical imaging and public health sciences, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. 

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