Just over two years ago I handed in my honours thesis, and last week my first peer reviewed article based on that research has finally been published (you can find it here). It feels amazing to see my name in a real scientific journal, but the process has been long and at times frustrating.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  • You can’t be a perfectionist
  • Respond to each of the reviewers concerns individually
  • Publish or perish – then promote!
  • Peer review has its problems – but it works

When it comes to writing, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I struggle to write drafts and spend a lot of time agonising over every word, but when I’m finally happy with it I usually feel like it’s the best version I could do. This method has worked pretty well for me so far, but it means that I find it difficult to edit my work and incorporate other people’s comments or criticism.

Throughout school and university, you may put a lot of work into an assignment but when you hand it in you know you’ll never have to read or think about it again. You might get some feedback, but once it’s done you don’t get a second chance to rewrite or improve on it. That was my mindset when I handed in my honours thesis – once it’s over you move on to other things. I couldn’t even read it again for months, and the thought of rewriting it for publication was horrifying. It ended up taking me more than a year to get the paper ready, and then when it was submitted I again put it out of my mind while it was being reviewed.

It was over 6 months later that I received the verdict: ‘accept – with revisions’. This is great news in the scheme of things – at least it wasn’t rejected outright as many papers are. But I found it very difficult and demoralising to read the feedback and criticism from the reviewers knowing I would have to rewrite it all over again.

I had some help at this stage from my supervisor/co-author, who explained the importance of addressing and responding to each of the reviewers concerns. Even if you don’t agree with their comments and choose not to follow their recommendations, you must make it clear why or they are likely to reject it again. If they had a problem with something and you disagree, it’s likely you at least need to explain yourself better so the reader understands why you did something the way you did.

Even after the paper was accepted, there was still more revision and editing to be done to make sure all the ‘T’s were crossed and ‘I’s dotted. It took weeks of back and forth between myself and the publishers to finally get to the finished product. In total, it took almost a year from first submission to publication. And I got off relatively easy – in many cases papers are rejected several times and have to be rewritten for different journals, all of which have a different style and format.

And it doesn’t even end there! As scientists we are taught to ‘publish or perish’ – your success as a researcher is measured by your publications, and unpublished research might as well not exist. But publishing isn’t enough to get your research out there, particularly if you want it to reach a wider audience beyond academia. I have already presented this research at conferences, done interviews for radio and local newspapers, presented at community field days and university field trips, tweeted, facebooked and blogged about it. I have been amazed with the response, and having people interested in my research is very gratifying. As scientists, we cannot forget to communicate our work with the people it actually affects.

Although the process has been difficult, all this rewriting, feedback and revision have made my paper much better. ScientistsĀ are constantly complaining about the peer-review process, and of course there are many flaws that I don’t need to go into here. My brief experience certainly doesn’t qualify me to offer any real suggestions on how to improve the system (and I haven’t been on the reviewer’s side yet!), but at least I know what to expect next time. So to all those students preparing to submit your first paper – be prepared! It will be frustrating, time consuming, demoralising, and tedious, but your work will be better because of it. And don’t forget to tell the world when it’s finally published!

Cartoon by Nick D Kim, strange-matter.net

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