Classically Inclined

August 22, 2011

Dealing with referees’ comments on journal articles

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:26 am
Tags: , , , ,

I meant to write this post a while ago, after I read this post by @evalantsoght on dealing with peer review comments on articles you have submitted. I’m currently in the process of putting an article together and I’m sure I’ll be blogging a bit more about the process of going through review when I’m in the thick of it again, but I thought it might be worth sharing how I worked through the comments I had on my last article.

In my field, you usually get reports back from two peer reviewers; each report starts off with a summary of what they think your article is about (always a good way of finding out if you’ve said what you thought you were saying), an outline of their general reaction to it and its arguments, and then page by page specifics on the article, which can range from picking out a typo or infelicitous phrase to pointing out the weakness of the argument in a particular section. I developed the following system for coping with my readers’ reports:

1. Don’t look at them. Whenever you first read a reader’s report, you get caught up in a wave of emotions – fear, despair, anger, distress, a sense of inadequacy and so on. The best thing to do is to read the reports as soon as you get them, assess what the next step is, and then put them away for at least a fortnight. The editor will have told you whether the article has been accepted, whether you’ve been asked to revise and resubmit, or whether you’ve been given an outright rejection, so you already know how urgent it is for you to do any further revisions. Get a sense of the work needed, let yourself have the emotional reaction, and then give yourself a couple of weeks to get over your sense of injustice before coming back to the comments with a clearer mind. They never feel so dreadful the second time around.

2. Make a working copy of the reports. I had one set of reports sent to me by post that I photocopied; when I had an electronic copy of the reports, I saved a version that I marked up with my thoughts as I went. I then annotated and highlighted my working copies with all my thoughts – whether I thought a comment was unfair, whether I felt something was worth following up, any comment that I felt deserved to be an action point. I then printed out my annotated copy and used that to mark off the changes and adjustments I made to the manuscript. If I decided not to follow up on a recommendation, I made a note of why. Having something to scribble on was also, I will admit, very therapeutic. If it helps, you can also use your working copies to create a list of revisions you want to make and tick things off as you go.

3. Ask someone else to read the reports. Once you’ve made the changes, send the new manuscript and the reports (with or without your annotations) to someone you trust. I sent mine to my reading group, but you might ask an advisor. Sharing your work and report means that you have another pair of eyes checking that you’ve answered all the significant points raised by the reports, and that the finished product still looks smooth before you resubmit it. If you’re particularly struggling with the reports, you might also want to ask someone else’s opinion before you begin the work of revision, particularly if there’s something you’re struggling to understand or can’t see a way to fix.

4. Remember – it’s your article. One thing I’ve noticed is that even the most constructive reader’s report contains suggestions that, if you followed them up, would essentially require you to write a completely different article with a completely different argument. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that sometimes reports come back which purely address the article that the reviewer wanted to write, and not the article that you have actually written. This is why coming back to the reports with a clear head is so important – so you can filter out which suggestions are useful, which are irritating but genuinely need addressing, which miss the point (and if they do, whether there’s a way you can stop another reader making the same mistake), and which you can safely put to one side.

5. Write your own report. If you are revising the article to resubmit it to the same journal, when you resubmit, you should include a brief response to the readers’ reports. Start by saying that you’ve incorporated the majority of the suggestions the reviewers made and that you are grateful for them (because you should have done, and you should be – remember that reviewers provide reports for journals gratis, and have sacrificed their time to try and help you). Then go on to list any significant structural changes you have made, and any points made by the reports that you have chosen not to implement. Explain your reasoning, clearly but not aggressively or defensively. You have a good reason for writing the article you’ve chosen to write, and you should be able to make a convincing case for why you are deciding not to follow other lines of enquiry.

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