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Knuth: Journal referees should assist authors

When serving as referee for a journal, who are you working for?

  • The editor: Will the paper add to the journal’s prestige?

  • The reader: Is it worth reading?

  • The author: How can it be improved?

I’d long thought that the referee’s duty was to the journal editors and then to the readers.

But Donald Knuth’s comments on refereeing persuaded me that I should focus primarily on helping the author to improve the manuscript.

See pages 31-35 (as numbered; actually 33-37 in the pdf) in his notes on mathematical writing. And here’s the missing page on “Hints for referees”.

Even a terrible manuscript can be published, if the author is sufficiently persistent. Your primary job as referee should be to help the author to make it as good as it can be.

Almost immediately after I first read Donald Knuth’s comments (back in 2002), I received one of the worst manuscripts I’ve ever read. It was one of those cases where I really wish the authors were anonymous, because I can’t forget who was responsible for it.

It was hard for me to say, “You have no idea what you’re doing” in a constructive way. (“You should abandon this manuscript” is not constructive, but it could be good advice. The scientific literature could use a bit more self-censorship.)

And I’ve learned to use the “Comments to the editor” as my opportunity to vent. (I would pity the poor editor on the other end, but she/he sent the thing to me!) I’d give an example of my venting, but I think I’ll leave that to another time.