Stacks of various stages of a revised paper. Note the caffeinated beverages.
Stacks of various stages of a revised paper. Note the caffeinated beverages.

By Evan

Any regular followers of this blog have probably noticed my output of posts has dropped off significantly this month. There is a reason for this. Revisions! Back in January, I received the reviews of a paper that I submitted late last year. It cleared the first hurdle, but it was evident that there was still a long way to go before the paper would be fully accepted. Two months later, after many long nights and interrupted weekends, I finally completed the revisions. The picture on the side captures what my desk looks like now, but it was even worse before (see TOO MANY PAPERS). This paper was the first time I have gone through the entire review process on my own, and I have some suggestions that might be helpful to other PHD students.

  • A paper is not a thesis chapter. This excellent point came about with a conversation with my friend Natalie, who organizes Seismometers in Schools. When writing a paper as a budding academic, it is tempting to write in depth about all the stuff you have read about. However, the people who are reviewing your paper probably know more than you on the topic, and regurgitating literature and unnecessarily drifting off topic is only going to get you in trouble. Be brief!
  • Just to reiterate, stay on topic! Virtually all of the comments made by the reviewers of my paper were on things I ended up completely removing from the revision. My paper was on a particular topic, and I spent a lot words going on about a related, but in my case irrelevant, subject.
  • Brief is better. I know that journals give you a word count limit, but you shouldn’t give into the temptation to approach that limit. My initial submission was around 11,000 words (the limit in this journal was about 13,000), and the reviewers and journal editor told me I was rambling. The revised paper cut down the word count to about 7500, and hopefully will be better received. Reviewers don’t want to wade through a long, rambling paper.
  • Know what you are getting yourself into. In my case, I got the paper back requiring “major revisions”. The fact that it took me two full months to complete the revisions, including weekends and evenings, should tell you how much work there that is. This is the point where keeping things short is good, as it means there will likely be less comments to reply to. One of the reviewers said I was not thorough enough, and as a result, I spent nearly three weeks searching out maps and papers that were not in the original model. After starting this process, I knew it was going to require extra time on weekends to finish it all. I’ll tell you, what I wasn’t expecting was the toll the tedious work of importing maps into Arcgis would have on my body. They tell you the importance of proper posture is, but no amount of warnings will get you through the repetitive stress of digitizing over 150 maps (and the seven hours it took me to put the references in a bibtex file). Deadlines can be harsh (I submitted the revisions on Tuesday, one day before the deadline to resubmit).
  • Be explicit and show your data fully. When I originally submitted the paper, I didn’t include a spreadsheet with those data. I hadn’t because everything was already published in other databases and papers. I spent a lot of time making up a spreadsheet with all my data, to be explicit on why I included some data, and rejected others. If I had done this before my initial submission, it would have saved a lot of time during the revisions. Also, make sure you go through the reviewer comments. I found very deep within them that they had suggested data to include in the paper, which meant I had to rerun my analysis a few extra times (though do note that this didn’t really take a long time).
  • Although it might be tempting due to the glory of it, it is probably not a good idea to attempt a single author paper, like I did. Having additional people is good, because they can help you out. They also might be a calming influence.
  • When I initially got the reviews, it was very upsetting to read through the comments. It feels like they are picking on you! However, after finishing the revisions, I greatly appreciate all the comments. Even though it was imposing to go through the many pages of comments (and believe me, one reviewer gave me 14 pages worth of comments), it really aided what parts of the paper needed to go, what needed clarified, and what had to be added. They are there to help you, so don’t get too defensive!
  • A couple of technical points that came about when I submitted the paper to journal (in this case Elsevier). I wrote the paper in Latex, which is a recommended format, and when I originally submitted it, there were no issues. However, when I submitted the revision, the references were not showing up! I spent an hour and a half trying to figure out what was going on, to no avail. I ended up contacting Elsevier’s help desk, and it turns out that their PDF generating script was not compiling with the bibtex file I provided. I ended up having to copy the contents of the bbl file that was generated when I compiled the paper on my own computer into the latex file itself. I imagine the reason the references were not generated with the bibtex file was related to the inclusion of Microsoft Office files that contained the reviews. Also, I created my figures using GMT, and a figure that had Greek letters in it did not render properly in the PDF generated by Elsevier. I don’t know why this happened, but I ended up having to edit the figure with Inkscape (a vector graphics software), and change the text to a different font family. Hopefully these points are helpful to people who run into these problems.

This process has been long and hard, though in the end, I have learned so much about writing scientific papers, and it will no doubt help me avoid future problems. The amount of time I put into the revisions was immense, and it still hasn’t fully sunk in that it is done. Next up is making up a presentation, which I will give in less than two weeks at the EGU conference! Still so busy…