So, the big news today, as far as I’m concerned, is that I received a decision on a manuscript. This is the first paper from my grant, which is now over, and which is kind of important for my career. It was submitted to a second-tier eye journal, after being rejected from a top-tier diabetes journal. The paper, of course, is about systems-science treatment of care for diabetic eye disease. And the big decision was (drumroll): “major revisions”. This is a tentatively positive result. This paper has been through an oddessy over the last six months of desk-rejects, peculiar rejection because the editor couldn’t find reviewers, and then a real, honest-to-betsy rejection after review from a good journal.
“Major revisions” as a decision category is a big catch-all. I don’t know what the options for this particular journal are. Generally, papers can be sorted into several different categories, not all of which are used by each journal: “Accept as-is”, “Accept with minor revisions”, “Revise and resubmit”, “Major revisions”, “Reject”. In general, “reject” is the most common result for good journals, and even for many second tier-journals. “Accept as-is” is essentially unheard of. The rest are all in regular play. In addition to my recent spate of rejections, I’ve been asked for revision prior to review, had a paper accepted with minor revisions (last January), and now this.
My reaction is one of guarded optimism. Over on twitter, the consensus is that “major revisions” is a positive outcome. Anything that isn’t “reject” is a positive outcome. A colleague here at work said the same thing when I told him. If they didn’t like the idea behind the paper, they’d have simply rejected. If they thought it was methodologically unsalvageable, they’d've done the same. So, the editor is interested enough to make it worth the time to request a revision and see where it goes. If I can be responsive to the review, it will probably (though not assuredly) be published.
The editor was unpleasantly candid, using words like “crude” and “simplistic”. But that’s the nature of scientific peer review. Especially with novel methods, they need to be attacked and defended. To have holes shot through them and then the walls rebuilt, so as to be certain we’re doing reasonable work and drawing appropriate conclusions. A lot of people have problems with the peer review process, and with good reason. Anonymity gives reviewers and associate editors the ability to, essentially, troll authors. Convention requires authors to be polite and obsequious in response. But not submissive. The response to review is a conversation, not a capitulation. However, too strong a defense of a cherished-but-assailed feature may result in the paper being rejected.
My strategy is normally to simply acquiesce to reviewers in nearly all circumstances. Because I’m interested in methodology and not phenotype, I will allow reviewers to guide me on all questions of medicine/health. Because I’m a simulation-builder and not an epidemiologist, if the reviewers have problems with how I conduct my sampling or organize my real-world subjects, I stipulate and conform. This is especially true because I don’t really have colleagues here who can help me in a lot of these matters, so the reviewers are actually incredibly helpful in these things sometimes. Sometimes I think they’re off base and I stand up to them.
And now, as admonished by @Namnazia, over on the twits, I am going to go revise my paper. I’d say wish me luck, but this part of the scientific process is probably the least susceptible to luck of all of them. Grants, those require luck. Getting a journal to consider your paper in the first place, that often requires luck. Responding to review isn’t about luck anymore. It’s about having a productive conversation with nameless, faceless colleagues who can crush your dreams and aspirations like a duck egg in a cobra’s throat. Wish me sanity.