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The Language of Peer Review

When I sent off the draft of my first paper to my PhD advisor I really felt like all the hard work was finished. I'd spent years getting my project started: getting IRB approval, identifying subjects, collecting data, and so on. Then I spent many more months analyzing the data, pouring over every detail. Then I spent many more months putting together figures and writing the draft.

But all of that?

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Let's get into my personal statistics (since those are the data from which I have to draw) to show you the language of peer review.

Over the past few years I've been co-author on 15 research manuscripts, of which I have been the main author on 7. I currently have 3 more that have undergone at least one round of peer review. These 10 first-author manuscripts have collectively undergone about 20 rounds of review, each consisting of 2-4 reviewers.

More than 16,000 words have been written by reviewers about these 10 papers. In response to them, I have written over 14,000 more.

Of note, the total word length for all 10 of these papers comes in at around 40,000 or so (not including references). This means that, for every paper I write, I will probably have to write around 35% more than what I consider to be the "final" version in order to justify its publication to reviewers.

Keep that in mind next time you try to estimate how much longer it will take for you to publish your manuscript. I often forget this.

Now, on the flip side, I've performed approximately 25 reviews for some of the most prestigious journals in cognitive neuroscience including: NaturePNASNature NeuroscienceNeuronJournal of NeuroscienceNeurologyNeuroImageJournal of Cognitive NeuroscienceCerebral Cortex, and so on.

For these 25 reviews I have written over 14,000 words. That may seem light at only ~560 words per review but my personal reviewing philosophy is to be concise but thorough. It is much easier to critique than to create!

If you have not experienced it, peer review is a strange affair. It's sort of like a masquerade ball in that peoples' identities are unknown (at least in one direction), but you know that you'll probably have to see these people unmasked at some point so you better give the appearance of propriety.

There's a lot of weird and interesting language play and kowtowing, with phrases such as "we thank the reviewers for their insightful comments" and "this is a very interesting manuscript, but..."

The word of the day is "asteism": "Polite irony; a genteel and ingenious manner of deriding another."

This generally sums up the peer-review process.

Just out of curiosity I decided to run all my reviews, comments received by reviewers, and response to reviewers through a tag cloud generator (thank you tagcrowd) just to see what it looked like. Check it out, I believe this to be a decent, quick insight into the language of peer-review.

My Reviews
You'll notice right away that certain keywords appear that represent the general class of manuscripts I'm asked to review: "EEG", "coupling", "gamma", "patients", and so on. The appearance of words such as "addressed", "important", and "interesting" belie the kinds of language I use (I generally do find most papers I review to be genuinely interesting, by the way).

Comments Received by Reviewers

Here again you see "interesting" appear. Everyone is interesting! We're all special snowflakes!

This is a good exercise for me though because I can see that reviewers have a tendency to use words like "specific" and "literature" against me. When I write I have a tendency to "jump ahead" and just assume that people will follow my logic without "showing my work". This is sloppy on my part and I struggle with the need to explicitly connect my thoughts.

My wife has to remind me of this fact for every. Single. Paper. That I write. For every talk I give. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now.

Response to Reviewers

This is great. You see how "reviewer", "correct", "thank", and "suggested" show up a lot in my response to reviewers? This is another interesting aspect of peer review. This shows the deferential language that scientists use in responding to their peers. This represents all the times I've said, "the reviewer is correct" and "we thank the reviewers for their suggestions" and the like.

Anyway, this was my attempt to peel back the curtain on peer review a bit if you don't have a lot of experience with it.

I don't have a clever or insightful ending for this post, so, uh, I'd like to thank the readers for their valuable time and for the intelligent, thought-provoking comments that are sure to follow.