I’m not an academic, but I have spent a lot of time (especially lately) writing, editing, submitting, and reviewing for “peer-reviewed” scientific publications. As a result, I wanted to share some of my experiences and insights gained that may help others who are planning to write, submit, or review similar peer-reviewed process pieces!
My background in publishing in peer-review journals
In 2016, I presented my first poster at a scientific meeting. This was a big deal, because I’m not an academic, I don’t have an academic degree, and I didn’t “work” my day job in the space I was presenting in. After the conference, I was given an invitation to write an article with the results of the study I had presented the poster on. I was nervous, but accepted, and did it. It turns out, it wasn’t that hard. (Granted, it was a Letter to the Editor, rather than a longer format ‘original research article’, but it still wasn’t as hard as I had perceived it to be). My article was successfully published in a scientific journal.
In the years since, I have subsequently decided to write up more of my research and results of work happening in the open source, do-it-yourself diabetes community. Why? As I wrote in this post, I realize that not all HCPs are willing or able to stay up to date with the bleeding edge of what’s being created and innovated on in the diabetes community. If we want HCPs to get up to speed more quickly, we need to play a role in taking the information to them. Thus, I work to publish in journals (since they’re more likely to read or stumble across those than blog posts). (If you’re interested, most of my publications are listed in Google Scholar if you want to see the types of things I’ve been writing and contributing to.)
My new hat: guest editing for a journal
This year, though, I started having a whole set of new experiences with regards to the process of journal publications. I was asked to serve as Guest Editor for the forthcoming special “DIY” issue in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.
Whoa. Hello, imposter syndrome! Who was I, a non-academic, non-MD, non-PhD, non-all-the-things, to play a role in what goes in the literature?! But I said yes anyway, because I figured it would be a good learning process for my own future efforts to publish. And it has been! (Although it is, like writing your own articles and peer-reviewing other people’s articles, unpaid work.)
Here’s what I do as guest editor:
- First, I dreamed up a list of people who should write for the special issue and likely had new insights not already in the literature, or had new research that would be a good fit for the issue. I sent the list to the production editor, who sent out official invitations to submit, and got people to commit to writing for the special issue.
- As manuscripts come in, it’s my job to review the submissions and recommend reviewers (usually 2-3) for each manuscript. Thankfully, I think every peer reviewer I have nominated has been willing to review the manuscripts we’ve sent to them – if you’re one of those folks, a big thank you!
- As editor, I then review the reviewer comments and make sure they’re appropriate to send back to the author. They have all been, so far. (This has been a super educational process in and of its own, more on that below.)
- The authors then revise their article, write a response to the reviewer comments, and send it back. It’s my job to review the revisions and response. I can either, based on reviewer feedback: reject it, accept it as revised, have the reviewers re-review it, or in a few cases, I’ve made a few edits myself (when inaccuracies were introduced in the revision, particularly a new added section) and asked the authors to approve or further revise those edits before I accept it for the journal.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned as a result:
I’ve learned a lot from getting to read the reviewer comments on other manuscripts. It’s been really helpful, because I have my own opinions when reading the manuscript in the first pass for picking reviewers, and then I can compare my own perspective on how it might be improved with what the other reviewers have flagged as needing adjustment before publication.
Also, this is especially helpful because I somehow have started getting a lot of reviewer requests myself (separate from my guest editing role) from both diabetes and non-diabetes publications, and this helps with my deer-in-the-headlights feeling of not knowing how to write reviews, other than the reviews I’ve read on my own previous work. What I’ve learned by observing a lot of these other reviews now is that on the one hand, as an author, it can feel nice to get a short, sweet, and positive review. However, as an author who wants the strongest manuscript out in the world, a longer, detailed review with both thematic comments and specific recommendations for improvements both helps the publication in the short term, and helps me write better future publications as well.
Similarly, seeing the variety of author responses to reviewer commentary have been educational. The best responses both respond in a separate document and describe what adjustments or changes should be made in the manuscript, but also highlight (either using different colored font or tracked changes) in the manuscript what those changes are. It’s a lot harder to review the revisions when the edits are all accepted/not colored to be easily spotted.
To be fair, it’s not always easy as the author(s) to make the changes in track changes like this. I just participated in a revision of a publication where I’m a co-author: this was a 19 page manuscript with over a dozen co-authors and likely hundreds, if not thousands, of changes. That revision was a LOT of work. But when there are obvious and few changes, and you’re an author, if you don’t already, consider using tracked changes or coloring the edits/additions. It makes it easier for the (guest) editor(s) to review and accept your revision!
How this has influenced my own reviews and future articles:
I also have a better idea of how to do reviews in the future, too. I know now that if there are many flaws that would prevent the publication from getting accepted with only minor edits, I try to stay high level (thanks to Aaron Neinstein for this feedback!) and note the major revision areas, instead of getting stuck in the weeds, because major revisions mean a lot of details will change underneath. I also try to specify where my recommendations go – i.e. make them in order as I read the manuscript, note major section headings or line numbers (although page/line numbers can be hard depending on whether someone is looking at a PDF with the cover page and abstract page and then the article, or just the original article).
Also, I now have a much better sense of the time it takes to do a review. I always try to do a quick skim of the article first. If I only mentally make small, minor or pedantic comments/suggestions, the review itself should only take 15-30 minutes to write and upload/submit the review. However, a manuscript with major flaws and major revision needed should have at least an hour scheduled. I learned this the hard way: a manuscript I procrastinated reviewing because it needed a lot of work took about 45 minutes to provide detailed (but needed) feedback. My review ended up running more than 1,000 words! This has happened several times now, but at least I know to budget an hour for those reviews.
And as a result, the major things I learned from reviewing that will help me with my own articles that I write in the future will be to check for gaps in logic where I assume common understanding that may not exist, and to make sure not to mix commentary in the middle of an article when I’m presenting background or factual information. These are common issues I regularly provide feedback on when reviewing other articles, and so I plan to check my own writing for logical flow and to make sure that discussion points are gathered correctly in the discussion and conclusion sections instead of sprinkled throughout.
I’m not done learning: I imagine I’ll continue having new insights as to the most effective way to write, provide reviews, and make edits to my own work in the future. But when I mentioned that I didn’t feel equipped to peer review at first, my brother (a professor with a PhD in math) wisely pointed out that academics don’t really get training in peer reviewing, or editing, either – so we’re all in the same boat of learning as we go along!
If you’ve ever guest edited or edited a journal, or served as a peer reviewer, what have you learned in the process that has been helpful for writing and submitting your own articles? What advice would you share? Please do share with us here!