When responding to reviews, fix your paper and not just your response!

The Arrogance of Authors

By Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

I am currently an associate editor for three journals (IEEE TVCG, IJHCS, and Information Visualization), and one of my pet peeves in this role are arrogant authors. More specifically, these are the (luckily very rare) authors who, when they receive several reviewer comments about a specific part of their paper, spend time clarifying the issue in their revision letter, but then fail to update the paper itself to clarify that very point. In other words, they are happy to invest effort to explain the confusion to their reviewers in the response letter, the letter they use to argue for acceptance, but can’t be bothered to extend the same courtesy to their actual readers.

It’s as if these authors believe that actually making their work clear, concise, and easy to understand is somehow beneath them. Worse, by just catering to their reviewers—who really are proxies for all readers—they are hypocrites in that they just pay lip service to the peer review process, as if they can only bear to “dirty” themselves with fixing their shoddy work to the point that it gets accepted, and no more.

I, personally, find this a totally inconceivable point of view. Scientific communication, above all, should be about clarity and conveying your ideas to the reader with as little distraction as possible. Stephen King states that “writing is telepathy“, and I tend to agree; the point is to transfer a message to your reader with as little transmission errors as possible. If several reviewers—these reviewers who really serve as stand-ins for your actual readers—pinpoint the same passages of your paper as problematic, you better believe them. Fix your paper, and don’t just explain the misconception in your rebuttal! Rebuttals are read only by reviewers, whereas your published paper may eventually be read by a much larger group of people. If you don’t fix your paper as well, you are sorely disrespecting the effort the reviewers invested in trying to make your paper better.

I have two specific anecdotes to back my claim. One is a review I wrote myself as an external reviewer more than a decade ago for an important conference in my field. The paper was excellent and worthy of publication, but there were several typos and grammatical errors in the paper that I, the fastidious Ph.D. student, felt should be fixed prior to publication. As a result, I spent an extra hour going through the paper with a fine-tooth comb. Then I gave the paper the highest score and sent off my review, but when I later looked up the paper in the conference proceedings, I was disappointed to see that none of my editorial comments had been heeded. The authors in question had merely used my acceptance and ignored my hard work. This paper is now widely cited and part of the foundation in my field, but I remain disappointed in the way these particular authors treated my anonymous efforts.

The second example is a paper I was involved with as an associate editor some time ago, where a particularly stubborn corresponding author flat-out refused to revise their paper to address reviewer misconceptions. They were happy to address these concerns in their response letter, but not in the paper itself. You could argue that I, the associate editor, should have held my ground and basically forced the authors to concede the point, but sometimes peer review is a war of attrition. After all, the role of a journal editor is only to be a gatekeeper so far, and to make sure that good (even if imperfect) work is published. This particular war is one that I lost. In the end, it’s the readers who will suffer for my failure.