Responding to peer review

Every now and again, I receive a peer review from an anonymous reviewer that makes me want to give up writing. Fortunately, this does not happen too often, otherwise I may have given up writing a long time ago (some reviewers are tough!). In the most recent instance in which this occurred, I printed out the offending review, scanned it, and set it on my desk to rest for a while. Since this review involved other authors, giving up was not a good option, so after about a week, I re-read the review and got to work. What does one do when receives “negative” reviews with respect to writing?

Focus on the positive aspects of a review

Psychological research tells us that the brain has a “negativity bias.” That is, human beings tend to focus on the negative, rather than the positive. When I re-read the review, I noted that the reviewer who had provided some strong critiques had also included some positive comments that I had overlooked in my first reading. This reviewer had also provided some astute commentary and concrete suggestions for how to improve the arguments in the manuscript. Again, in my first reading, I had skimmed over these, and focused on some remarks that I took to be scathing. Further, a second reviewer had provided positive commentary, along with some suggestions for improvement. Having reviewed what was helpful, and what was not, I was able to sort out:

  • what revisions could be made to improve the manuscript using reviewers’ suggestions; and
  • what critiques and commentary I would overlook.

Thus, “negative” comments in reviews can be helpful in revising our work to strengthen arguments — so critical comments are not necessarily a bad thing, even though we can interpret these negatively. These sorts of comments can help us improve a manuscript.

Get to work

Typically, once I have sorted reviewers’ comments into two categories – what is useful and what is not, I handle the comments using two inter-related strategies. These are

  • Use criticisms to locate sections in the manuscript that a reader has misinterpreted or which need stronger support. In cases where a reviewer appears to have misunderstood an argument, I need to articulate it more clearly, or in instances in which the reviewer disagreed with an argument or analysis presented, I work to provide further support for these.
  • Discern where a reviewer is coming from. Of course, this relies on a reviewer providing sufficient warrant for a critique, which is not always included. If I am able to discern that a reviewer is coming from a very different viewpoint, I may work to develop a stronger case for my own argument, while acknowledging another point of view.

Let it go

Academic work involves peer review. Just as we ourselves have strongly held viewpoints about research that we are passionate about, so do our peers. This results in all sorts of disagreements and debates – many of which find themselves into the pages of journals. One does not need to look very far to find scholars commenting on one another’s arguments to pinpoint perceived flaws and problems. Unfortunately, some of these critiques verge into the personal and disrespectful. Given the nature of blind peer review, anonymous reviewers can be less than artful in how they deliver their messages to others. It occurred to me that sometimes peer reviewers who have a lot of knowledge about a topic are literally besieged with requests to review others’ work, and when they write up their comments, do so as quickly as possible. This means that reviewers can sometimes omit some of the niceties of face-to-face communication.

Thus, in responding to the review that spurred this blogpost, I was able to take what was useful, and let the rest go. I am grateful to the reviewers for the time and effort that they spent on commenting on my work. Their comments helped me revise, and I hope improve the manuscript.

Keep going

Finally, remember that many well-known authors and scholars who have gone before you kept going in spite of reviews that encouraged them to give up. If a peer review does not provide commentary to help authors improve their work, then it could be that the peer review process has failed. This can occur when reviewers are assigned to review manuscripts for which they have insufficient knowledge to conduct fair or informed reviews, or when reviewers do not give sufficient effort to writing helpful reviews. In these sorts of cases, editors must decide what to convey to authors, and whether or not these sorts of reviewers should be sought out for future reviews. In these sorts of cases, think about the ideas that you hope to convey to others, and keep going.

All the best in your work as both a peer reviewer, and a recipient of those peer reviews.

Kathy Roulston

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