A small rant on writing academic papers

Published: 2011-07-22T14:10Z
License: CC-BY

Warning: rant ahead.

This week I submitted for review the second revision of what will hopefully become my first scientific publication. Together with my supervisor I spent countless hours on this article. But does that mean that it is now the best text that I have ever written? I don't think so.

While a lot of effort did go into improving the clarity, structure, etc.; there are several competing interests which make things harder:

Pleasing the reviewers is something which I especially disliked. To be fair, a lot of comments raised by reviewers were valid, and pointed to actual shortcomings or errors in the manuscript. But some of the comments were of the form "Could you also compare with X", "Did you consider Y" and "This is related to prior work Z". As a result of trying to cover these comments, the paper becomes a Frankenstein's monster of irrelevant remarks. Where before we had:

  1. General Point 1
  2. Detailed Point 2
  3. Therefore Point 3

It now becomes

  1. Point 1
  2. Remark saying that point 1 was previously considered by SomePaper2010.
  3. Detailed Point 2
  4. Contrasting approach 2 against approach 2b from OtherPaper2009.
  5. Therefore Point 3
  6. Aside saying that also 3b, which is irrelevant for the rest of the article.

Okay, I am exaggerating a bit here. But still, I feel that the article would be better if it didn't try to do so many things at once.

Suggestions, criticism and comments on my sanity are welcome.


Jason RiedyDate: 2011-07-22T21:32Zx

You don't have to appease *every* reviewer. Having one glowing review or two good ones can push this up in the program committee's stack.

KetilDate: 2011-07-23T08:48Zx

I think you should address every objection raised, but it is perfectly acceptable to address it in your comments to the reviewers and not in the article. You may also disagree with reviewers, of course. "Did you compare to Y" -> "No." or preferably "We decided to concentrate on X because..." Asides that disrupt the flow should be avoided - for instance, previous work should be reviewed in the intro/background section - or you could discuss it in discussion - keeping "methods" and "results" clear and to the point. And of course, reviewers may also be looking for acknowledgement of their own works (they're people, too) just adding a reference is sometimes enough to appease them. In short, let them help you improve the article, but don't let them make it worse.

Twan van LaarhovenDate: 2011-07-23T23:05Zx

Jason & Ketil: Thank you both for the comments. I suppose I could be slightly more bold in saying "no" to reviewers. Well, not literally of course, but at least not try to cover every suggestion/comment in the paper.


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