What I learned from the peer-review process (so far)

Positive referee reports are all alike; every negative report is negative in its own way.

Yesterday I submitted the first paper of my PhD.  As I mentioned in my last blog post, it is about my first project as a doctorate student, on the formation pathways of methanol in interstellar ices. This was also my first experience with writing an article on laboratory astrophysics, which gave a fun experimental spin to my writing modus operandi.

But this is not the first time I go through the peer review process. Shortly after I finished my bachelors and started my masters, I submitted my first first-author paper on a project I had been working on as a continuation of my undergraduate thesis. At the time, I was so exhilarated by the fact that something I did was—hopefully—going to be part of the scientific literature that what came next could not be described as anything less than a bucket of cold water.

Among the three referee reports received, one did not recommend the paper for publication. Not only that, but its content displayed the quintessential negative-and-borderline-hostile criticism we have all heard scary stories about. My giddy anticipation was instantly converted into disappointment, and the positive feedback of the other two referees was not nearly enough to assuage my hurt feelings.

Despite the unpleasantness of the situation, one must persevere. After three more reviewing rounds—at this point largely fueled by a spiteful belligerence worthy of George Constanza—the paper was finally accepted for publication. The fight was over: we won!

Weeks passed peacefully until the final version was published. In the meantime, I had not but once read the manuscript in question (for the proofreading, which we all know it’s a different kind of reading). Then, once it was out, I read it again. And as I went through it, it became increasingly clear to me how the comments of the infamous referee helped to improve the work. It is not that I hadn’t noticed this while working on the reviews, but it was partially obscured by my understandably negative feelings about the report. Although it would have been appreciated if they had chosen a different tone, their contribution indeed elevated the paper.

This experience taught me an important lesson about humility, maturity, and patience. Humility to recognize when someone notices something you did not, maturity to deal with scientific criticism without taking that personally, and patience to let go of hurtful and unhelpful comments.

Since then, none of the other peer-reviewed articles I published resulted in such an involving story, for which I am very thankful. Naturally, I hope things can go smoothly with this next one too. But, if it doesn’t, I can look back at this text and remember the Big Picture.

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