The Hard Skill of Scientific Writing


Available in French


I sent my first research paper to a scientific journal this week, and as I was browsing through the web looking for a sample cover letter for my submission, I found this very interesting one

The author seems to be exhausted, and we may be wondering why…therefore, a simple exegesis may be required.

The submission's cover letter begins as follows:

"Enclosed is our latest version of MS# XX-XXX-XX-, that is, the re-re-re-revised revision of our paper. Choke on it. We have again rewritten the entire manuscript from start to finish.   We even changed the goddamn running head! Hopefully we have suffered enough by now to satisfy even you and your bloodthirsty reviewers."

When your research is getting to its end and when you decide to publish your scientific article, the difficulties are getting worse and the process begins to be very complicated. Basically – and beyond the paper's structure depending on both the research writing ptotocol and the journal prerequisites (page limits, figure limits, references style….) –  you submit your paper, you wait for the acceptation for review (or a sharp refusal), … you revise and are published. But, and what irritates our author is the review/revise process that can last for ages,…being done and redone and redone…

Our on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown-author pursues as follows:

"I shall skip the usual point-by-point description of every single change we made in response to the critiques. After all, its fairly clear that your reviewers are less interested in details of scientific procedure than in working out their personality problems and sexual frustrations by seeking some kind of demented glee in the sadistic and arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power over hapless authors like ourselves who happen to fall into their clutches. We do understand that, in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren't reviewing manuscripts they'd probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death. Still, from this batch of reviewers, C was clearly the most hostile, and we request that you not ask him or her to review this revision. Indeed, we have mailed letter bombs to four or five people we suspected of being reviewer C, so if you send the manuscript back to them the review process could be unduly delayed."

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet may bring some relevant explanation to this colorful complaint:

“Editors and scientists portray peer review as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller.  But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.” 

Our close-to-burn-out-author concludes:

"Assuming you accept this paper, we would also like to add a footnote acknowledging your help with this manuscript and to point out that we liked the paper much better the way we originally wrote it, but you held the editorial shotgun to our heads and forced us chop, reshuffle, restate, hedge expand, shorten, and in general covert a meaty paper into stir-fried vegetables. We couldn't or wouldn't have done it without your input."

The above extract bridges the Journal of Young Investigator's wisdom quote:

"It’s important to remember that a paper accepted in peer review can still be poorly written, poorly researched, and just plain wrong.  Some of the most influential manuscripts of the 20 th  century were never peer reviewed, including Watson and Crick’s famous 1951 paper that announced the discovery of DNA. That said, you still have to know how to research and write well.”

That said, I'm cheered up.



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