Whether you submit your work scientific journal or just post it on a blog, you can expect to receive harsh criticism from time to time. Sometimes you are facing arrogant or ignorant readers. Other times, your work is genuinely flawed. My own work is frequently flawed, as you know if you read this blog.

Over time, I have learned that even if the reviewer is wrong, spending time to careful respond can be tremendously useful. If you are 100% correct, then you get to build up your confidence and can later answer similar criticism hastily. Very often, however, you did not do everything perfectly. Maybe your arguments and data are correct, but you might have presented them better.

There are specific strategies to deal with harsh reviews:

  • Expose yourself regularly to criticism from total strangers. In my experience, if you rarely publish, you are more likely to have difficulty dealing with criticism. I have been called an idiot, I have had to deal with overly aggressive people and I have been ridiculed on occasion. Of course, I occasionally get depressed after receiving harsh criticism, especially if I thought I had produced great work and feel unappreciated, but I am typically able to recover mentally in minutes or, at least, hours. Part of it is just habit: my brain has learned that harsh criticism does not necessarily signify upcoming pain.
  • It is critically important to distinguish yourself from your work. If someone repeatedly produces inferior work, his reputation will suffer. However, everyone (even Nobel prize winners) gets it wrong from time to time. It is important to keep in mind that most reviewers do not care that much about you. In fact, they often quickly forget about you while you ruminate over their review.
  • The best way to address criticism is to take it one comment at a time. If someone finds ten different flaws in your work, don’t look at it as one message: break it into ten components and address each one separately. This approach scales up linearly: it just take ten times longer to address 10 flaws than one. Brian Martin describes it well:

    I’ve found a way to make the revision process easier. I don’t reread my text, because that just cements my previous approach. Instead, I go through the recommendations of the referees and the editor one by one, making changes. After I finish all those changes, large and small, I print out the whole article and read through it, fixing up expression and making it flow.

    Tackling recommendations one by one is important psychologically. Looking at a list of criticisms, sometimes pages of them, can be demoralizing; the task seems too big. Focusing on a single point is easier. Once it’s done, you can check it off and proceed to the next point, either immediately or tomorrow.

    Sometimes responding to a point requires additional work, such as obtaining and reading some new theory or doing some new calculation. It’s helpful to write down every step that’s required – for example, (1) order Smith’s book, (2) read the theory section, (3) write a one-paragraph summary – and tackle them one by one.

14 Comments

  1. Daniel, this is an awesome and inspiring blog post. Thank you.

    Comment by Zeno — 26/1/2012 @ 10:44

  2. @Zeno Thanks!

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 26/1/2012 @ 10:46

  3. I totally needed it. I was at the verge of leaving out research after receiving over 4 rejection back to back in last year.

    Exposing research might help big time.

    Comment by Tushar — 26/1/2012 @ 11:05

  4. “I occasionally get depressed after receiving harsh criticism, especially if I thought I had produced great work and feel unappreciated.”

    I wouldn’t have even thought that well-established professors could still feel this way after many great publications, and that one just has to find a way to deal with such setbacks. It’s a great lesson for someone like me trying to make it in academia.

    This habit can also be extended to deal with many other kinds of setbacks in life:

    “Part of it is just habit: my brain has learned that harsh criticism does not necessarily signify upcoming pain.”

    Thank you.

    Comment by Pardis — 26/1/2012 @ 12:02

  5. Thanks Daniel. Just got my first paper rejection 2 days ago. It was close, but didn’t make it.

    We had 4 reviewers who expressed strengths and weaknesses of the paper. Some of the problems they expressed were valid. Others, well I didn’t agree.

    Now that I need to make the appropriate changes, and submit it to a more selective publisher.

    Comment by T. Nguyen — 26/1/2012 @ 12:18

  6. I was just about to start rewriting a paper which got rejected due to bad presentation and was feeling depressed and looking for ways to avoid doing that. This article seemed written for me especially.

    Comment by Debadeepta Dey — 26/1/2012 @ 16:06

  7. I would add do not reply to criticism on the same day you received it. Every time I receive negative comments from referees I think #$@% and &^#, but mostly @&%., which is to say I have a very negative attitude towards “those morons”. However, when I wait until next day to deal with the comments I have a much better view of what “those morons” say and, sometimes, “those morons” are right.

    The following day I can see that my explanation was not very clear, my notation was flawed, that figure could have been presented in a much better way. When I wait I can also see opportunities to provide much better refutations when the reviewers are plain wrong.

    Comment by Luis — 26/1/2012 @ 19:46

  8. I’ve been avoiding applying changes to a paper. It’s time to finish it up.

    Thanks for the great advice!
    Very timely post.

    Comment by BartG — 27/1/2012 @ 0:47

  9. Thank you for this! very helpful and timely…I also wanted to add that this not only happens in academia…I work as a scientist for a big company and there constantly your work is being reviewed for your peers (that may have the same level of knowledge that you have or not). You have to learn to take criticism as part of the process and try to communicate better your ideas without taking it personal.

    Comment by Massiel Orellana — 29/1/2012 @ 13:41

  10. I also take this approach. I first make a listing of all the issues mentioned by the reviewers and what I might do to address them. I do this fairly soon after getting the reviews back. I list every issue even those I don’t think I can resolve. After that I usually sleep on it.

    Then, I start on addressing the problems. If the reviewer missed an important point or misinterpreted something, I try to make the point so obvious that another reviewer could not make the same mistake without looking incompetent. In some cases, that means putting it early in the paper, like in the 2nd or 3rd paragraph of the intro. In other cases, I may just reword the point so it is more clear, depending on how important the point is.

    It is always a bad idea to just think it was a bad reviewer and not make any changes. If you submit to another venue, you could get the same reviewer again (actually not that unlikely) so it is always good to at least change the wording or mention what the reviewer commented (“we didn’t use approach Z because …”) on so it looks like you tried to resolve the issue.

    Comment by Steve — 29/1/2012 @ 21:38

  11. It is also important to remember that reviewers will often see your responses, so it is always good to be polite. A reviewer will be better predisposed to approve your paper even with lingering issues, if he or she feels that the criticisms were carefully considered and materially improved the paper.

    Comment by Anonymous — 2/2/2012 @ 10:07

  12. Great advice. My five cents: I believe that to survive in Academia one has to have a death grip. In a good way, of course, you should not grip what is dead and stinks already. Reviewers are right most of the time (in this sense or another). Yet, there are some nasty exceptions. And they leave caustic comments.

    Comment by Itman — 13/2/2012 @ 16:11

  13. My paper has been returned to me for revision; however, one of the reviewers was not satisfied by using just one laboratory method. The other reviewer is very interested in the manuscript and made several comments for improving it. I have answered to all of his comments properly. But, I do not know what should I do about the first reviewer as I can’t apply another method due to money matters. What’s your idea? Does the second reviewer’s sanctification is enough for accepting the paper?

    Comment by Anonymous — 14/5/2012 @ 3:29

  14. @Anonymous

    Only the editor of the journal can answer this question. This being said, can you show that what the first reviewer is asking for is prohibitively expensive?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 14/5/2012 @ 7:14

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