Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Microbiologist XX reviews her first paper

While in graduate school I helped my PI review a couple of papers, but informally. This usually involved me reading the manuscript and then discussing my criticisms with her. What she did with them, I have no idea. Now, Magnum PI wants me to review a paper. He is going to review this one with me, but after that I am pretty much on my own.

He sent me the abstract of the paper today and from that alone I could find some obvious problems with the experiments. Another thing that was abundantly clear upon reading the abstract was that English is not the native language of the authors. In fact, some parts were so poorly written that I had to make assumptions about what the authors were saying. This brings me to my question:

How much does a reviewer get involved with the writing?

For my own papers, I've seen reviewers correct the random spelling or grammatical error, but I have a feeling this paper is going go way beyond this. If I am confronted with sentence after sentence of bad grammar and spelling, as in the abstract, what should I do? Where do you draw the line? The journalist in me wants to correct everything, but obviously I don't have time to rewrite a paper and that is probably not a reviewer’s job.

If there is a limit to how much spelling and grammar a reviewer should correct, does the quality or the science influence this limit?

Anyone care to put in his or her two cents on this one?


Anonymous said...

In your response to the editor, you should tell him that this article should not be accepted until rewriten, and then sent out again for a more complete review. This is different than the reviewers comments, and isn't seen by the authors.

Tom said...

How much does a reviewer get involved with the writing?Depends on the journal. Some ask for input on grammar and spelling, some don't.

If it's a couple of typos and the odd grammar issue, I point them out. If the typos are egregious and abundant, and the grammar is atrocious, I will send it back stating that it can't be accepted in its current form and that the grammar/spelling make the paper generally unreadable.

Tom said...

Oh yah by the way ... I was geeked to review my first couple of manuscripts as an ad hoc reviewer. Actually the warm fuzzies lasted for the first couple of years. The fun diminishes rather rapidly however once the editors know you're available and they tap you every couple of months (and you're trying to get your own shit in order). Learning to say "I can't do it this time around." on occasion will come in handy.

Mad Hatter said...

I'd do what Anonymous said, but also state in my comments to the authors that the meaning of sections X, Y and Z are unclear and need to be clarified.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I hate reviewing! It's when the imposter syndrome is most evident because the stakes are so high.

When I had papers with a similar problem, I wrote something like, "the paper could benefit from editing for English."

microbiologist xx said...

Thanks so much for the input everyone. These are great ways to address this issue. I'll try to do a follow-up when I get the paper. I am hoping the writing in the abstract is not representative of the rest of the manuscript, but I am not going to hold my breath.

Ecogeofemme - I think imposter syndrome might come into play for me too. For one thing, I really don't feel like I have enough knowledge in my new field to be reviewing a paper, but I really didn't think that was something my PI wanted to hear. Fortunately, I already found some problems just from the abstract, so at least I will be able to make a couple of comments.

Tom said...

Well, while you might not know the nuances of the field, you'll be able to interpret results and know when they used techniques appropriately, etc etc. Besides, it'll be a good learning experience.

I've reviewed manuscripts from petroleum bioremediation to microbial fuel cells, and those are areas I've never worked in and probably never will. I think being asked to review work by direct "competitors" will be rare (at least it has been for me so far).

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anonymous and Mad Hatter. I would send it back and say that the quality of English is so bad that you can't even review it.

AA's BH said...


Thanks this. I've just got back from my hols to find a request for exactly this. Any more suggestions would be greatly appreciated as this is my first, so be gentle please.

Dimitris said...

the moment you have to make assumptions on the paper that means the fail to convey the message. i agree with the comment in your private note to the editor just request a rewrite and resubmission. but it needs to be rejected. as for the spelling, if it is extensive just point out at the review that there are many spelling mistakes and they should be careful. bring up a few examples.