Research has been a huge, tedious drag this week—even more than usual, I mean. At least I still feel like I’m inching ever-so-slowly forward. I’m responding to the referee’s report on the Paper From Hell.
For my non-academic readers, when you submit a paper to a scholarly journal, your paper gets sent out to one or more reviewers. These reviewers, or referees, decide whether the paper is worth publishing. This system is called peer review, although grad students don’t typically do the reviewing, so the referee isn’t really my “peer” right now. Anyway, if the referee thinks your paper is OK-ish, he or she writes a bunch of comments on how to make it better.
The good news is that the Paper From Hell was not rejected. It’s likely to be published with maybe one more round of edits after this. The really good news is that the referee (there’s only one in my case) made almost zero comments on my interpretation and conclusions, which I frankly think are the shakiest sections of the paper. Nearly all of her/his feedback has to do with the technical stuff. That stuff is solid; apparently I just have to make sure I explain it re-e-e-e-e-e-ally clearly.
The bad news is that my referee clearly doesn’t work in my (fairly broad) subfield, and has asked a bunch of rather dumb questions as a result. There’s always a fair point to be made that if your reviewer didn’t understand something, other readers might also not understand it, and therefore you should make it clearer even if it already seems obvious. And so I do, but not without rolling my eyes.
One part of the Paper From Hell, roughly two paragraphs long, says (and I’m paraphrasing here, obviously), “To accomplish Z, we did X, and then we did Y.” The referee asks:
1) “To accomplish Z, did you do Y?”
2) “When you did Y, did you do Extremely Common Technique, or did you do Thing That Doesn’t Actually Work For Y?”
3) “Where you say that you did X, you should say that you did Y instead.”
These really are three separate comments in a 23-point list.
Item #15 was easy. “You should show some figures of Q. See item #21.” Item #21 turned out to be a repetition of this request, along with more specific suggestions on what she/he wanted to see in these figures. It remains unclear to me why it was necessary to list these as two distinct points.
The general cluelessness of the comments has left us debating whether our referee is a young, inexperienced person or a cranky old guy. I’m leaning toward the latter. The phrasing of the comments gives off a subtle vibe—it could just be in my head, but it’s persistent—of implying that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Let this be a warning: beware of adopting that tone, lest it turn out that it is in fact you who are the ignorant one in the situation.
Still, in the end, it could be a lot worse. I’ve tidied up some paragraphs, added a couple of new figures, and written some stuff about how “we thank the referee for a constructive report.” I’ve tracked down some fiddly details from my co-authors (which involved some truly absurd conversations, but that’s a story for another day). The referee will hopefully be happy with our response, and I in turn will be happy that I never have to work on this paper again.