Thursday, May 30, 2019

Responding to Critical Reviews

The first scientific paper I published was submitted to Physical Review B, the world's leading scientific journal in condensed matter physics. Mailing in the manuscript felt like sending my soul into a black hole, except not even Hawking radiation would came back. A seemingly favorable review returned a miraculous two months later:
"I found this paper interesting, and I think it probably eventually it should be published - but only after Section II is revamped and section III clarified."
I made a few minor revisions and added some computations that had been left out of the first version, then confidently resubmitted the paper. But another two months later, I received the second review. The referee hadn't appreciated that I had deflected the review's description of "fundamental logic flaws and careless errors" that made my paper "extremely confusing". The reviewer went on to say "I do not think the authors' new variational calculation is correct" and suggested that my approach was completely wrong.
A ridiculously long equation

My thesis advisor suggested that I go and talk to Bob Laughlin in the Physics department about how to deal with the stubborn referee. I had been collaborating with Bob and one of his students on a related project, and he had become a surrogate advisor for my theoretical endeavors. During that time, Bob had acquired a reputation among my fellow students for asking merciless questions at oral exams; many of us were scared of him.

Bob's lesson on how to deal with a difficult referee turned out to be one of the most useful things I learned in grad school. Referees, he told me, come in 2 varieties, complete idiots, and not-complete-idiots. (Yes, Bob was merciless.) If your referee is a complete idiot, all you can do is ask for a different referee. If your referee has the least bit of sense, then you have to take the attitude that either the referee is somewhat correct, and you think YES-SIR MISTER REFEREE SIR! (Bob had been in the Army) and do whatever the referee says to do, or you take the point of view that you have explained something so poorly that the referee, who is an excellent representative of your target audience, had no hope of understanding it. Either way, there was a lot of work to do. We decided that this referee was not an idiot, and I needed to go back to the drawing board and re-do my calculation, figuring out how to be clearer and more correct in my exposition.

A third review came back with the lovely phrase "The significance of the calculation of section II, which is neither fish nor fowl, remains unclear." Using Bob's not-idiot rule, I recognized that my explanation was still unclear and I worked even harder to improve the paper.

My third revised version was accepted and published. Bob later won the Nobel Prize. I'm here writing blog posts for you about RA21.

RA21 received 120 mostly critical reviews from a cross-section of referees, not a single one of whom is the least bit an idiot. Roughly half the issues fell into the badly-explained category, while the other half fell in the "fundamental flaws and careless errors" category. RA21 needs to go back to the chalkboard and rethink even their starting assumptions before they can move forward with this much-needed effort.

1 comment:

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