The top 3 pieces of advice for your next journal submission
I’ve reviewed many dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of manuscripts across the behavioral, social, and medical sciences, and I’ve also been fortunate to see many of the peer reviews that come back from initial submissions. It’s surprising how consistently certain criticisms are made by reviewers, and it makes me think that a few points of advice to authors bear emphasizing as a sort of public service. So here are my top 3, in ascending order of importance:
- Write for the generalist. Not everyone who reads your paper will be an expert in gait analysis of the frail elderly, or the various causes of pain in denture wearers, so be sure you explain specialized terms, procedures, or theories that a generalist reader needs to understand. Even if you are writing for a journal whose audience is within your own fairly specialized field, it is better to err on the side of caution than to cause a reviewer to feel exasperated because she doesn’t understand your abbreviations or jargon. As long as an author isn’t repeating himself, I’ve never seen a reviewer complain that there was too much explanation of specialized information in a paper.
- Keep your conclusions within the scope of your data and design. We all know that cross-sectional designs cannot determine causation, but you might be surprised how many times authors use causal language to describe the findings of such studies. Another common error is to fail to see limitations in one’s own data set that might affect the generalizability of results. Recognizing these limitations and admitting them goes a long way with reviewers. It’s a bit like ruining someone’s favorite shirt in the laundry — the whole thing will be less of an ordeal if you own up to it, rather than waiting to see whether the person will notice. It’s far better to get those limitations out in the open early in the publication process.
- Maintain a clear line of reasoning. By this, I mean state a clear research question (with specific hypotheses if possible), say why it’s important and how your study will address it, then close the loop by explaining your findings as they relate to the research question (and each specific hypothesis, if applicable). If I had a $10 bill for every time I’ve seen authors fail to make these very basic things clear for the reader, I’m sure I’d at least be able to buy myself a quick trip to Mexico. Although you may think that the aims and importance and their relevance to your findings are obvious, usually they are not — unless you’ve taken the trouble to lay it all out for your readers.
Of course, all of this assumes that your basic research design and analysis plan are sound. One of the reasons I see so many authors having difficulty with point 3 above is that they have flaws in their design or analysis that don’t allow them to draw a convincing line from the research question to the design and data analysis, to the conclusion. This is why it’s so helpful to have someone with the relevant expertise review your paper before you submit. An outside reader who is well-versed in research in your discipline in general, but is not a specialist in your area, can also help you evaluate point #1 by marking places in the manuscript where more explanation of terms, methods, or ideas is needed.
At the very least, if you pay attention to these 3 points before you submit your paper for review, you’ll be rewarded with a shorter list of reviewer comments and questions, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve saved one or more overworked reviewers the frustration of using incomplete or unclear information to try to evaluate the soundness of your study.