Daniel Lemire's blog

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How to revise research papers after receiving harsh reviews

Whether you submit your work scientific journal or just post it on a blog, you can expect to receive harsh criticism from time to time. Sometimes you are facing arrogant or ignorant readers. Other times, your work is genuinely flawed. My own work is frequently flawed, as you know if you read this blog.

Over time, I have learned that even if the reviewer is wrong, spending time to careful respond can be tremendously useful. If you are 100% correct, then you get to build up your confidence and can later answer similar criticism hastily. Very often, however, you did not do everything perfectly. Maybe your arguments and data are correct, but you might have presented them better.

There are specific strategies to deal with harsh reviews:

  • Expose yourself regularly to criticism from total strangers. In my experience, if you rarely publish, you are more likely to have difficulty dealing with criticism. I have been called an idiot, I have had to deal with overly aggressive people and I have been ridiculed on occasion. Of course, I occasionally get depressed after receiving harsh criticism, especially if I thought I had produced great work and feel unappreciated, but I am typically able to recover mentally in minutes or, at least, hours. Part of it is just habit: my brain has learned that harsh criticism does not necessarily signify upcoming pain.- It is critically important to distinguish yourself from your work. If someone repeatedly produces inferior work, his reputation will suffer. However, everyone (even Nobel prize winners) gets it wrong from time to time. It is important to keep in mind that most reviewers do not care that much about you. In fact, they often quickly forget about you while you ruminate over their review.
  • The best way to address criticism is to take it one comment at a time. If someone finds ten different flaws in your work, don’t look at it as one message: break it into ten components and address each one separately. This approach scales up linearly: it just take ten times longer to address 10 flaws than one. Brian Martin describes it well:

I’ve found a way to make the revision process easier. I don’t reread my text, because that just cements my previous approach. Instead, I go through the recommendations of the referees and the editor one by one, making changes. After I finish all those changes, large and small, I print out the whole article and read through it, fixing up expression and making it flow.

Tackling recommendations one by one is important psychologically. Looking at a list of criticisms, sometimes pages of them, can be demoralizing; the task seems too big. Focusing on a single point is easier. Once it’s done, you can check it off and proceed to the next point, either immediately or tomorrow.

Sometimes responding to a point requires additional work, such as obtaining and reading some new theory or doing some new calculation. It’s helpful to write down every step that’s required – for example, (1) order Smith’s book, (2) read the theory section, (3) write a one-paragraph summary – and tackle them one by one.