Wednesday 20 June 2012

Even your critics can be a blessing

I spent a large part of yesterday and today working on revisions to a research journal article I am writing with two colleagues. This activity was in response to comments made by the three anonymous reviewers. You see, before you can get an article published in a respectable journal it has to go through a fairly involved process of scrutiny called peer review, and this usually involves making some alterations to the text.

Cartoon by Nick D Kim, Used by permission

Of course it's always nice when people comment favourably on your work and, indeed, two of the reviewers were very supportive and were just requesting minor changes that would make the article clearer. However, the third reviewer didn't see the article in the same way as the others. In layman's terms he (or she) just "didn't get it", they did not seem to get the hang of what we were trying to say. That was, in part, understandable as the article is concerned with the application to a computing problem of a branch of conceptual mathematics that is not widely known in community that reads the journal in question. Consequently, the reviewer was raising questions that made us question the quality of our work. In short, we were quite despondent about our work's reception. Despite two very positive sets of feedback it was the third negative one that spoke the loudest to us.

We sat down yesterday to plan our strategy for responding to the reviews and, after quite a bit of discussion, we realised that even the negative verdict turned out to be a blessing. For in thinking about why the reviewer said what they did we began to see what their misconceptions were about our work and how we had still failed to make our point clearly enough. We were subsequently able to drop a portion of the text that did not contribute significantly to the main narrative thus freeing up room to provide a fuller explanation of our main points. Today I wrote up the new sections and emailed the revised article to my colleagues for their feedback. Overall, I think the new version is much better, punchier, and stronger than the original. So, whilst our first submission met with a, frankly, very disappointing reception, we were able to take the negative feedback and use it to make the article even better than it might otherwise have been. Here's hoping the journal editor agrees with us and accepts the article for publication.

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