Peer review positivity
I think we can all agree that as conservationists, sharing what we’re doing in the lab, wildlife centre, field, or town hall matters. Without that, other groups and workers don’t know what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, or whether it works. While we can blog about what we’re doing, put it in newsletters, or show up at conferences, taking the time to formally write it up as a peer-reviewed scientific publication has many advantages.
Yet, this process is often long, difficult, and sometimes seemingly soul-crushing. At worst, it can distort research results or obstruct their quick dissemination. But like Churchill pointing out that democracy may be the worst form of government, except for all the other ones, peer review is the scientific system that seems better than the other ones - at least for now. And so for better or worse, I think that learning to master the process matters. I don’t think this has been taught well in universities, although many are trying to change that. So I was very pleased to have the Writing for Conservation course included as part of our Post-Graduate Diploma in Endangered Species Recovery in Mauritius last year. It’s been valuable for me already and I was happy to share my thoughts on it when Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust asked.
So the story goes: I had a leftover paper from my Master's which had gotten bogged down in a drawn-out review process - minor revisions had turned into major revisions, editors were confused, and reviewers were rude, at least the way I perceived it. Comments on some of these early papers suggesting the work wasn’t worthwhile and that I didn’t know my stuff stung. It would be many years before I’d see anything like this comforting exposé of rejections. When I went to Mauritius I'd decided it wasn't worth going back to the paper; I didn't need it out. But we had lots of authors on it and every few months one of them would ask for the status and I never had any good answers. I had no idea how to fix it.
During the workshop, editor Martin Fisher of the journal Oryx shared his thoughts and told us what felt like a hundred little secrets about how to go through these sometimes confusing processes. My favourite part was when he put our work up on the screen in front of everyone, shaping and editing it in just a few minutes, so we could see exactly how to quickly improve our own phrasing and writing styles. After the workshop, I understood that:
a) Peer review should be viewed as a good thing – this workshop helped me realize that reviewers are indeed trying to make your work better, even if they do sometimes come across as rude.
b) Context has to be broad, clear, and obvious, right from the start.
c) Simpler, more direct language wins.
d) No one likes poor graphs, and in fact they actually do hurt your chances of acceptance.
e) You need to work quickly before the data goes 'stale'. There’s no reason not to start writing as soon as you collect the data. Unlike cheese and wine, data does not age well.
Re-motivated, I took corresponding author and rewrote the paper, and it came out recently. After years in peer review at different journals it felt great to have it finished. But even better is the idea that I could continue writing – and work on 'real' conservation every day, but also properly share my findings now that I better understand how to do so.
This workshop didn't make the scientific publishing process seem easy, but it made it seem more possible, important, and normal for conservation staff to publish whenever they can. Getting this dragging project off my plate has re-inspired me to pick up some other old field notebooks and see what else I might be able to do. And good news for everyone else: you view the Durrell Learning Network’s workshop with Martin Fisher on YouTube today.
Laura works as a Conservation Biologist in eastern Canada and was a “Canada’s New Noah” scholarship student through Wildlife Preservation Canada in Mauritius in 2016.
Posted 17 July 2017