Thursday was a long but generally good day. Among other things, we got the referee report back on one of our manuscripts. Here's an excerpt:
RECOMMENDATION: Minor Revision
Sufficient New [Science]: Yes
Well Organized and Clearly Written: Yes
Good Title: Yes
Good Abstract: Yes
TECHNICAL QUALITY RATING: Outstanding
PRESENTATION RATING: Outstanding
[The authors] employ a set of well-know numerical techniques, and also some new approaches... but their combined use is very novel and creative.
The analysis is very carefully performed and presented, with a detailed explanation about how the authors have solved notoriously troublesome problems such as ...
Overall this is an outstanding contribution which pushes forward the state-of-the art.
This is a report from a reputable society journal (the full report is much more detailed, with specific requests for minor revisions). The paper is quite long, it will be close to 20 double-column pages in print (including appendices though), yet the actual peer review took only 3 weeks. That means the referees (a) were not horribly discouraged at the though of reviewing it, which is remarkable for very long papers, and (b) once they got around to reviewing it, they did not drop it, pissed, after page 3, because it was poorly written. Which is totally what I do with poorly written papers and that's why it takes me forever to review them -- I keep going back and getting annoyed and dropping them and picking them up again...
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to write clear, fluid prose and polish, polish, polish before submission. Because the time you invest in polishing your paper translates into time/hassle saved in the review process and probably saves some health units of your reviewers. Now, if you are in the business of GlamourMag chasing, there are obviously no guarantees even if you write on par with Mario Vargas Llosa (or insert another writer you like). But, in my experience, for society level-journals, there is a high correlation between the tender loving care with which you massaged your manuscript prior to submission and its smooth acceptance. TLC also means that you do not publish before you feel you have a compelling story, and you have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. The paper above was about 4-5 months from first draft to submission-ready.
Now, why am I talking about manuscript writing -- again? I am currently working on 3 manuscripts in parallel, trying to get as much done and submitted as possible before I deliver (3 weeks left). These are all very comprehensive manuscripts, so there's a lot of material and it's going slowly.
Today I met with one of my students on whose manuscript I am currently working. We have gone through multiple revisions already and it's nearing completion, but there are still places that were significantly changed from the last revision and, since they are newly drafted, look pretty bad. We were going over the manuscript and I said something like "I completely don't understand what you are trying to say here" and he responded along the lines of "I know you don't understand what I am doing and you don't like my writing."
Then it dawned on me: he thinks I don't know what he is doing technically, which is absolutely NOT true, and that's why I dislike how something is written. Instead, what I have been trying to convey -- apparently quite unsuccessfully -- is "When a person reads this part of your text, it is impossible to understand what you are trying to say and why. I know exactly what you are doing and why, and you still threw me for a loop with what is written -- how do you think someone who is doing only a cursory read of the text will react?"
There is a tangent here on why this student thinks I don't know what I am doing; it may be his ego (he is very smart) and there may be an undercurrent of sexism there. But I can't afford to worry about it now, I just want the goddamn paper done and submitted. So I told him, in my most empathetic voice, that he should not worry. That I know what I am doing and will not ruin his paper by rewriting it, and that I promise that clarifying these points will make the paper easier to read and people will like it and cite it more. That certain subsections ought to be moved to appendices as they restrict the flow of the paper, but that they also ought to be expanded for completeness, so that someone who wants to reproduce his work has all the needed information at hand. So he should go and expand the sections I requested while I work on the remainder of the text.
I should probably delegate more paper reviewing to this student, so he can learn the differences between good and crappy writing. And he should go talk to the student who is first author on the paper mentioned early in this post about how much hammering that manuscript received before submission in order to get the glowing reviews and smooth acceptance.