Can you chat with your reviewer?

The manuscripts I review invariably fall into four categories:

1. This is crap. (Rare).

2. This is terrific. (Even rarer).

3. This can be OK, but they really need to fix A, B & C. (fairly common).

4. If I only knew what they meant in point A, I could say whether they need to fix A, B & C or just B & C, or maybe explaining A will clarify to me that B need not be fixed at all.(Really common!)

The things is, sometimes draft manuscript are good, but unclear on a very specific and crucial point. Like point A.  The lack of clarity is not necessarily due only to bad writing. Sometimes it is very hard to describe a new idea or method. After all, it is new, right? So no-one has described it before and finding the correct way to describe you new idea or method can be very tricky. Some people use analogies (like me, I love analogies). But an analogy can be over interpreted, and then mis-interpreted, and your intricately concocted explanation is all shot. Then again, some authors do not use analogies, but explain their methods very formally. A reader who is very visual (like myself) would like to see a some graphic depiction of the method, but that may not be possible, or the author’s graphic rendering skills are not good enough.  In any case, I seem to get a lot into the position where my opinion of the paper hinges around one or two crucial details. If this were a seminar, and the author was talking about her work, I would just ask her to clarify the point. But I cannot do that when reviewing an article. Which leaves me with asking to perform major revisions, which sets the paper into a serious delay mode or sometimes reject because other reviewers have been less amenable.   (As an aside, I have noticed some reviewers  just let  the ambiguity of point A slide. This usually happens if the last author is Dr. Bigschotte, holder of the Endowed Golden Chair professorship of Biowizardry).

But maybe I can ask that clarification question of the author, or even have a brief dialogue? Anonymous email/chat technology can do wonders for shortening the turnover time of papers and clarifying issues. I am not saying that writers are now given a free license to write badly. But if needed, a chat session or email exchange monitored by the editor could really help push a paper through (or away). The exchange should be very brief, topical, logged (with the referee anonymized). The session should be requested by the referee, with very specific questions. The number of back-and-forth exchanges should be limited.

As a referee, I see myself more as a midwife (or whatever is the male counterpart) than a gatekeeper. I am not interested so much in keeping bad papers out (that is actually fairly easy), but letting good science in, even when it presents itself feet first and covered in gunk (OK, that was a rotten analogy, but you know what I mean). Anything that can ease this process is more than welcome.

So… any takers? Or is this a terrible idea? Better yet, has something like this been done?


PS: actually, as an author, I sometimes receive reviewer comments which I do not quite understand. This is even worse, since if I don’t address the issue in the way the reviewer asked for, it can spell the death of my paper. So this mechanism of quick dialogue between reviewer and author can work well both ways.

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6 Responses to “Can you chat with your reviewer?”

  1. widdowquinn says:

    “As a referee, I see myself more as a midwife (or whatever is the male counterpart) than a gatekeeper.”

    I like the analogy. Sometimes you need forceps, sometimes just words of encouragement, and occasionally there’s nothing to do but watch the natural course of events. There have been times when, as an author, I would have appreciated gas and air…

    BTW, I think the male counterpart of a midwife is usually ‘male midwife’. Sadly, I kid you not. There are many reasons why I don’t get involved in sexual politics 😉

  2. Marshall Abrams says:

    The review process for the “Frontiers In” journals (e.g. Frontiers in Neuroscience) includes a step which could serve a purpose like your proposed chat system. In the first step of the Frontiers process, review editors submit reviews without interaction with the author. The next step, however, uses “the real-time Frontiers Interactive Review Forum, in which authors and review editors collaborate online via a discussion forum until convergence of the review is reached” (

    (I’m an Associate Editor for Frontiers in Evolutionary and Population Genetics, a not-yet-launched section of Frontiers in Genetics.)

  3. Ragothaman says:

    This is a great idea. However, I see a recent trend where the reviewer after reviewing the paper says that he/she does not want to review it again. It means that he/she does not want to wait for author’s explanations. I think this is unfair to some extent where the reviewer’s brain are conditioned to certain theories and biased to read what conforms their pre-conditioned minds….

    Anyway, this journal does another way of pee-review model, which I find interesting…

  4. It would not require too much time to set up an anonymous email account and contact the corresponding author. I know also some reviewers are used to directly take the phone and go over with/out expliciting their-selves…

  5. MRR says:

    I agree that it’s a great idea. And it would be easier for all involved if it was a possibility formally offered by the journal.

    Now extending this to grant reviews, that would be cool. 🙂

    Marshall, thanks for the link to the Frontiers reviewing process.

  6. @MRR: I agree that it would be also cool for grants. In fact, a Canadian colleague of mine told me that in one Canadian agency you get the chance to submit a proposal, and then get to chat about it, in person, with a panel. I am not sure how prevalent this is, nor how this procedure can scale up to large overworked and understaffed agencies as is the case in many other places. If any Canadians are reading this, and are willing to elaborate, please chip in.

    @reporter gene: the thing is, what you are suggesting is in a gray, if not a black area right now. Most journals forbid direct contact between reviewer and author, for many reasons.