Peer review is the only widely accepted method for research validation – but it is not always a straightforward process. In this blog, Dr Carole Sargent gives her top tips on understanding and responding to negative peer reviews.
Peer review can be a strange process, but it is the best we have in academia. Much of it is helpful, and will make your paper better. But what about when it is confusing or even wrong? The first two pages of this article from the European Journal of International Law perfectly explain the perils of peer review, and it underscores my point that editors understand fully how flawed the system is.
Understanding negative reviews
Problems with peer review can fall into one of these categories:
- Too specific: This peer writes four single-spaced pages of detailed notes about every aspect of your research. To please this peer, you would need to write a completely different article – which is unnecessary.
- Too vague: This peer wants something different, but doesn’t tell you what. These reviews are often short and nonspecific, so you feel bad about your work but you don't know why.
- Contradictory advice: Sometimes the peers don’t agree with each other at all! It is not fun to try and figure out why one peer loved your research results and another peer hated them.
- Inappropriate suggestions: Peers can ask for things that aren’t right for your research. This can happen when peers come from a different areas of your field, or when they simply don’t do a very good job of reviewing your research.
- Discouraging language: Because it is anonymous, some peers may actually insult your work. For instance, they may say that it isn’t even worthy of graduate school, or that it is fine for a low-ranked journal, but not for the excellent one to which you submitted it. Unkind peers will also focus on your writing style, your choice of topic and your argument skills.
It helps to remember that everyone receives unpleasant peer reviews from time to time – even senior scholars, who have published many papers! You will be truly professional if you learn to respond quickly and unemotionally.
Responding to negative reviews
Here are my favorite strategies for responding to a revise-and-resubmit decision:
- Use the best, and discard the rest: You are not obligated to do everything the peers ask. Much of their advice will be helpful, but some will not – and your editor knows this.
- Don't offer to do everything: Write a short revision plan and get approval from your editor before you revise anything. List each point in the same order as the peer review so that your editor doesn’t have to hunt for it. Editors will often place your plan and the peers’ letters side-by-side and check off each point.
- Revise minimally: Unless your editor says otherwise, s/he hopes your revised article will resemble the original. If you completely rewrite everything, you could force your research into a new round of peer review – and you probably don’t want that.
- Remain positive and professionally neutral: Editors do not want to be on the receiving end of your frustration. Often they agree with you, but they cannot say it. If you must defend why you did something your way, keep it short. Always maintain a professional demeanor and respond briefly and promptly – this way, editors will love working with you.
If you are told to revise and resubmit your research, then make a professional point of returning the paper as soon as possible, prioritizing it above all of your other written work. Your next version is very likely to be published, so treat revision as your top priority.
If you get a rejection, hunt for specific language that says: “If this paper did x or y, then I would reconsider it”. That sort of language is a hint that you should revise your research and then start a new submission process with the same journal. It isn’t actually a full rejection (scholars laughingly call these “reject and resubmits”).
However, if it is a true rejection, then revise the paper lightly (if at all), and then approach a journal of the same rank or higher. Do not go lower. After all, once you have made revisions, you should have a better paper! It is neither faster nor easier to go to a lower-ranked journal – and sometimes as you go higher, you go toward the resources that can help you improve your work.
Dr Carole Sargent is the founding Director of the Office of Scholarly Publications at Georgetown University, US, where she provides guidance to faculty on publishing at top peer-reviewed journals and the most selective university presses.