Geology & Geophysics Editors' Vox

Benefiting from Good Reviews: Part 2

Martyn Clark reflects on how his experiences of going through the peer review process as an author have influenced him as an editor.

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My most memorable publishing experiences were not those that were plain sailing but rather when I encountered difficulties in the review process. As I start my tenure as Editor-in-Chief for Water Resources Research (WRR), I wanted to share some reflections on the value of the peer review process drawing from my own experiences. In Part 1 I offered some advice to early career scientists thinking of submitting a paper to WRR on making the most of reviews. In Part 2 I reflect on how my personal experiences an author have influenced me as an editor.

In my experiences as an author, there were some cases when reviewers clearly spent a large amount of time on my manuscripts, Moreover, they offered constructive feedback – often with great gusto – that substantially improved my published papers. At times the reviewers disagreed with my methods and perspectives. These experiences left me feeling rather frustrated, and, on one occasion I wrote a parable to portray the problem:

Once upon a time, in a land not too different from our own, an artist sought to paint a picture of his community, portraying the challenges faced by him and his fellow working people. He wanted to convey a sense of optimism – that the community’s challenges were surmountable, and that the community could make effective progress in creating a better life for themselves.

The artist worked tirelessly, and he eventually finished his painting. He thought very carefully about what he would include in his painting, its perspective, and he carefully crafted its individual elements so that they fitted together and clearly conveyed his message. Though he viewed this painting as part of ongoing work, and could have continued to add more and more breadth and detail, he felt the picture he painted was complete in its message, and firmly decided against trying to paint everything he knew and cared about. He showed his creation to his fellow painters and they encouraged him to take it to a public exhibition.

The artist exhibited his painting at a major forum, where it was judged by three respected members of the community. Two of the community members appreciated the artist’s perspective and congratulated him on his work. But one respected member of the community, a mysterious yet clearly distinguished artist, did not like the painting at all. The critic did not like the perspective: he suggested that the artist start again with a blank canvass and paint a new picture from a higher vantage point.

When the artist went home that evening his colleagues greeted him at the door. They could not wait to hear about his exhibition “Well”, they asked, “did they like your painting?” The artist went over and sat down in his favorite chair. He was silent for a few moments, and then he spoke: “Most, yes, they did like my painting. But there was one critic who said it was flawed and wanted me to re-paint it from a higher vantage point.” The artist then muttered under his breath: “Does he want me to paint a picture where his house features more prominently?” He went silent for several minutes, then spoke again: “No … he just wants me to paint like he paints…His paintings are indeed beautiful, but they do not portray the plight of the working people”.

The artist and his colleagues discussed the exhibition late into the evening. After a while the artist’s friends suggested “You might have to re-paint the whole thing!”

The artist went to work again. He warped his perspective to illustrate how the plight of the workers related to the view from the hill. He incorporated the critic’s house into the painting, and he made the critic’s house look stunning. Yet, no matter how much the artist changed the painting, it never seemed to be as compelling and natural as his original.

Finally, the artist went back to his original painting. He detailed some parts previously covered only in broad strokes, and adjusted his perspective to illustrate the view from upon high. But he retained all of the essential elements of his original painting.

And the artist then unveiled his painting to the entire community …

Although I didn’t have the courage to include my parable in my official review response, the editors recognized that the debate was based on opinion and that the review comments should not stand in the way of publication. In this case the paper was quite popular, largely because these debates helped me to clarify my positions and sharpen my message.

My experiences have shaped my perspectives on the review process. My experiences motivate me to foster a constructive review process, effectively handle situations where authors feel that they have been treated unfairly, and carefully consider new ideas that may be at odds with the dominant philosophy in specific groups. My primary goal as an editor is to help authors improve the quality and impact of their work.

—Martyn Clark, Research Applications Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research; email: [email protected]