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.