From the Editor
A smile is worth a thousand words
Imagine that you find a colleague want-ing to spend time discussing a topic of mutual interest. You greet him or her with a smile and a handshake and sit down together. Soon the conversation becomes animated: it is apparent that you have conflicting opinions about the "truth" of the matter at hand. You argue vehemently, defending your opinion, perhaps even in the light of new information. In the end, you likely leave with a smile on your face, mulling over the second opinion. The next time your colleague volunteers his or her time for a new discussion, you jump at the chance.
The peer review of manuscripts submitted for publication is, on the surface, similar to the discussion about a topic of mutual interest, but the end result is often not as amicable. The author may not be jumping at the chance to repeat the experience. Why do you think that happens? There may be a multitude of reasons but let me discuss a few obvious ones.
The author may have a difficult time accepting any criticism of the paper. This is understandable. The author has spent considerable time, effort, and creative energy to complete the research, analyse the data, and write the manuscript. Typically, authors do not submit a paper until they believe that it is as good as it can be. Any criticism, no matter how minor, is difficult to accept. People who continue to submit papers realise that the review process is just part of publishing and begin to learn from the feedback without taking personal offence.
It is unrealistic to hope that all referees will fully support the paper as it is submitted. I was told early in my career as a graduate student that most manuscripts will have two referees who want minor changes and one referee who either has major concerns or wishes to reject the manuscript. Once I accepted this as the common occurrence, I came to expect that one challenging review.
Each manuscript submitted to the Journal of Swine Health and Production is reviewed by three referees and a lead reviewer. The panel is selected because of their expertise in the subject matter described in the manuscript. Often manuscripts cover material in multiple disciplines, so we may ask a reproductive physiologist, an epidemiologist, and a bacteriologist to review the same manuscript. We frequently see a different opinion from each expert. Each person has had different experiences with the subject matter, and this will be reflected in their comments. It becomes particularly troublesome when the referees make contradictory recommendations. The lead reviewer, author, and editor then become jointly responsible for determining the best approach. If the author completely disagrees with a suggested revision, he or she has the opportunity to explain to the editor why the change was not made.
The tone of a review substantially alters the author's response to the written feedback. Recently, I read a review that began with something like "The author has presented information on a very important topic of concern for the swine industry. It is important that this information be conveyed to the readership." The referee then proceeded to ask the author to make substantial changes to the manuscript, but in light of the first two sentences, it was likely that the work seemed less daunting. I have personally had the opposite experience. The first manuscript that I submitted for publication was returned by two positive and one very negative referee. The comments by the latter suggested that the pork producers had been foolish to fund such an incompetent researcher. I was left feeling frustrated and completely inept. Fortunately, at the Journal of Swine Health and Production, if this kind of negative comment were made by a referee, it would not be conveyed to the author, and the referee would not be asked to review again.
The tone of a review may be misinterpreted and may leave the author feeling vulnerable. At the same time, when referees write their comments with every good intention of helping to improve the manuscript, but their feedback is viewed as derogatory, they are also offended. As the editor, I occasionally find myself in the middle of these misunderstandings. Why does this happen? It may be that the author would have a difficult time accepting any criticism. The tone of the review, while not offensive, may provide no glimmer of support. Often this is because the manuscript is poorly written, lacking a logical flow or omitting too many details for the referees to fully understand the research. The science may be strong, but the manuscript is difficult to evaluate. This typically results in a re-write and a re-evaluation. If referees can follow the logic of the manuscript, then it is their job to critique the science. The grammar will be edited by Dr Judi Bell in the copy-editing stage.
The purpose of the peer-review process is to improve the science of manuscripts published in our journal for the benefit of the authors, the subscribers, and the scientific community as a whole. I appreciate the effort of the referees and lead reviewers who donate their time for this worthwhile cause, but it does leave me wondering ...
The next time you are an author or a referee, think about having a conversation with a colleague. Don't you think that all of the misunderstanding would likely be solved with the universal language of friendly greeting - a smile and a handshake?
Welcome to new editor
It is my great pleasure to welcome Dr Robyn Fleck as the new "What's your interpretation" editor. Dr Fleck received her veterinary training at Tufts University, Grafton, Massachusetts, graduating in 1992. She served as staff veterinarian for Cargill Pork in Russellville, Arkansas, from 1992 until 1999. In 2000, she accepted her present position as Technical Services Veterinarian at Schering-Plough Animal Health. I look forward to working with Dr Fleck in this capacity. If you have an idea for an article for "What's your interpretation," send Dr Fleck an e-mail at Robyn.Fleck@spcorp.com. If she calls on you for a submission, please jump at the chance to share your knowledge with our subscribers.