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My question has to do with whether my responsibilities as a reviewer also includes copyediting duties.

I am in the midst of reviewing a manuscript for a mid-tier applied health sciences journal. While the topic is potentially important, the manuscript is poorly written and the methods used were simply inadequate to answer the research question. The manuscript read like a first draft, rather than something that has undergone some degree of polishing and internal review before being sent out to the journal. Given a manuscript laden with spelling and grammatical errors, awkward sentence construction, and incomplete ideas, how detailed should reviews be for very bad manuscripts? Is it my job to "copyedit" (correct the grammar, spelling, etc.) the manuscript, or should my constructive criticism be focused on improving the big picture issues, such as:

  • Whether the authors convinced me that the study was timely or necessary. (No.)
  • Whether the methods were appropriate for the research question. (No.)
  • Whether the authors' conclusions were supported by the data they presented. (No.)

My annotated hard copy of the manuscript is full of comments in the margins about spelling errors and awkward sentences, which can be found every 2 or 3 sentences. I am of course more than happy to put in the review, but at the same time, I do not want to "embarrass" the authors by essentially saying that they do not know how to write.

I am curious to hear others' experiences with bad manuscripts and how they have handled them.

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    "I do not want to "embarrass" the authors by essentially saying that they do not know how to write." Definitely be careful what you say. What seems to be a first draft to you may have taken months for an English learner to achieve. Also, it is possible that a student wrote the paper well, only to have their supervisor mess it up. When reviewing, remember you cannot see behind the scenes. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 26 '15 at 18:10
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    @AnonymousPhysicist if you want to be 'graded on a curve' for your English language and communication skills, or to receive marks for effort, you should not be submitting papers to scientific journals. – jwg Apr 27 '15 at 11:02
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    You may see this. – user 170039 Apr 27 '15 at 13:51
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    @jwg I feel my words are being twisted. I did not comment at all on the acceptance or rejection of papers. My point is to make polite comments regardless of your viewpoint, and to consider that the reviewer has limited information. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 28 '15 at 2:23
  • @AnonymousPhysicist and the reviewer should only review the paper at hand and don't act on anything that could have or could not have be happened. If the language and the methods used are bad then it's the reviewers duty to mention it. – DSVA Jul 8 '17 at 23:35
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I view my job as a reviewer to be about triage and the "first order" issues with the manuscript. Thus, for a very good manuscript, I will point out minor copy-editing issues, because those are the first-order issues remaining. For a not-so-good manuscript, I will note if the manuscript needs language editing but focus on the scientific issues instead, because any specifics of copyediting are likely to be obsoleted in any case by the larger repairs that are necessary.

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    Just a suggestion for your already good post: it seems to me that the term "first order issues" as you use it would be more accurately expressed as "leading-order issues". – NeutronStar Apr 25 '15 at 20:32
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    @Joshua As a person with a lot of computing and modeling in my background, rightly or wrongly, I honestly think of it in terms of "first order approximations." Think of it as principal component analysis. – jakebeal Apr 25 '15 at 20:39
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    I take the exact opposite approach. If I receive a paper to review that is poorly written, with lots of soellng and grammar errors, I will rcommend rejection immediately, without considering the scientific merits at all. If a paper isn't professionally written, it's not ready to be seriously reviewed., no matter how good the results. (And better results deserve better wrining.) – JeffE Apr 27 '15 at 1:03
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    As a PhD student, my supervisor taught me that if a review focusses on small, detailed remarks and not on the bigger picture, that is a good sign. I agree with jakebeal here, not with JeffE. – gerrit Apr 27 '15 at 2:24
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    @JeffE I find your approach highly problematic, particularly for dealing with international papers. I always ask myself: "What if I were being asked to write in their native language?" If spelling and grammar are interfering with my ability to interpret the scientific content, that's a problem; if there are just lots of mistakes, that can always be cleaned up later. Yes, it gives me a bad first impression, but I try to overcome that. – jakebeal Apr 27 '15 at 10:07
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Here are some intuitive thoughts:

  • No, no one expects you to copyedit
  • Your primary duty is to help protect the integrity of literature in your field. Therefore, as user6726 suggested, if the paper is hopeless, there's nothing there that should occupy a lot of your time.
  • However, as a good citizen of your scholarly community, it would be good to "pay it forward" by giving some sort of actionable feedback that will help the authors to improve not just this paper but in general.

So, my recommendation would be to give brief, actionable feedback (maybe one or two paragraphs), focused on the biggest shortcomings that could be corrected in the authors' future work. A sentence or two for each of your bullet points would be quite adequate.

Wise authors will heed your terse feedback and improve; other authors don't care, so don't benefit from the attention you're giving them.

Meta-point: If you're marking up the hard copy as much as you say, and you're not the authors' English composition instructor, then you're also not using your time optimally.

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    I'm a new academic, and have only done one round of conference reviews, so please take my comments with a grain of salt. However, it seems to me the best use of SE is for me to jump in there and give my recommendation, and if more seasoned folks take issue, that's pedagogically great for me. – Philip Apr 25 '15 at 20:31
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    @Philip thanks for your answer. Before graduate school, I had a brief stint teaching scientific writing at a community college, and my habits of marking up student assignments/drafts for grammar, spelling, etc. has stayed with me throughout the years. I markup hard copies without really thinking about it (fixing errors is a strange tic that makes me feel better somehow, hard to explain). That is, until I have to translate everything into the reviewer's assessment platform on the publisher's website! – marquisdecarabas Apr 25 '15 at 21:53
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    Isn't the primary duty of a reviewer to faciliate the publication of high-quality papers which readers find interesting, and thus to advance science? 'Protecting the quality of the publishing outlet' is a secondary goal. – jwg Apr 27 '15 at 11:01
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    "Your primary duty is to help protect the quality of the publishing outlet" -- disagree. Your duty as a reviewer is to protect the literature in your field. Often, those two goals intersect. However, you do not work for the publisher, and they PAY people to assume the described role. – Scott Seidman Apr 27 '15 at 17:06
  • Fair point, Scott. Can you think of any example related to the OP's question where the two would diverge? – Philip Apr 27 '15 at 17:15
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I do not bother with detailed comments about writing unless there is reasonable hope that the submission could be made publishable. Even then, the main reason to include comments about writing is to make clear to the author to what extent the paper is unintelligible as written. Although it is (in some fields) traditional to list all of the punctuation, grammar and spelling errors, this is a waste of your time. I've frequently had to give very detailed comments on writing because the author had valuable material that should be made available, but they had no idea how to communicate effectively. In those instances where I've understood the point, I will take the time to explain why A is a better way to put it than B. But if the venue has a single-revision policy and the paper is a clear reject, then there is little point, unless you are encouraging the author to try again with a different journal.

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    One way the O.P. could deal with this issue is to include several comments on the writing for just a couple of paragraphs, and then include an extra note saying something to the effect of, "Writing shortcomings such as these plague this entire paper." That way, the author gets some tangible feedback, but the reviewer doesn't have the onus of correcting the whole work. – J.R. Apr 25 '15 at 21:25
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By the time that an article arrives for peer-review, I've come to expect that it's been thoroughly edited by the authors. If it hasn't — and this is especially true considering that you're offering your time freely as a reviewer — comment that the manuscript, as it stands, needs major linguistic fine-tuning in the relevant sections, and suggest that authors re-submit once they've ironed those out. That way, you don't waste your time on work you really oughtn't be doing (I agree with Philip's reply, here), and are streamlining the process by giving a quick reply.

I've spent time working in both academia, and for a service which helps foreign researchers get their manuscripts ready for publication in English journals (we've also had people send in other academic manuscripts, just for general edits). It was pretty common to have academics reach out to us to help edit their work after receiving a "you should consult a scientific publication editing service" comment from the peer-reviewers. Most of the time these comments would also include a critique of the methodology/analyses/etc., but I don't think that you're obligated to do so if the writing is so poor that you're struggling to understand what's going on.

Lest this read like a sly advertisement, the editing job sucked, and I hated doing such mind-numbing garbage on the daily; unfortunately, that was my job, and I had to do it. As a reviewer, you don't have to. There are enough problems with the academic publishing system without making peer-reviewers play copy editor.

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I stopped pointing out spelling and grammar errors midway through grad school. These days I'll give a one-sentence summary of the state of the writing, with an exhortation to do a thorough editing pass if necessary.

I'll make exceptions for errors that critically affect the science presented in the paper or the conclusions, such as

  • typos in mathematical formulas;
  • sentences that say the opposite of what the authors likely meant;
  • technical terms that have been misused;

etc.

If a paper is unintelligible I will carefully read it twice (in case later parts of the paper clarify earlier sections) before giving up and skipping parts I don't understand (and noting as much in my review).

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You wrote that "the methods used were simply inadequate to answer the research question." Unless I've misunderstood that statement, it looks like a sufficient reason to reject the paper regardless of any other problems. So, if I were reviewing such a paper, my report would begin by explaining why the methods are inadequate. Then I'd say something like "In view of this inadequacy of the methods, I recommend that the paper be rejected." After that, I'd mention, as a secondary issue, the defects of the writing. I'd probably include a few examples and then say that there are a great many similar examples.

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I find these the quickest to review, but I usually blame on the editor to have passed them on. (A desk rejection would have been in place if issues are so apparent.)

What I do is it write a short comment stating that the study is not clearly written, followed by trivial examples. I do not attempt to correct anything. Finally I state 1-2 main shortcomings in the Methods, and wrap it up. Should take 40 mins in total.

(Disclosure: Since lately I have been avoiding giving a clear recommendation of the kind Accept/Reject unless forced because I think ideally an Editor should take that decision based on his/her own impression in view of the reviewers' reports. Too many editors nowadays just fish out recommendations to add up.)

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