Reviewers’ comments: the good, the bad, the ugly

In her continuing series of blogs on academic writing as an independent researcher, author Helen Kara considers the ‘gift’ in the academic publishing process that is typescript reviewers feedback. 

Helen KaraReceiving reviewers’ comments can be a scary moment. Will they hate it? Will they like it but want lots of changes? Will they even agree with each other?

HK for 12-09-14giftIt can be hard to remember that a review is a gift. Think about it: someone has taken the time and effort to read your work and give you feedback. If you’re lucky, it will be immediately obvious that the feedback is helpful – but this is not always the case.

The International Committee on Publication Ethics published a set of ethical guidelines for peer reviewers in March 2013. Among other things, they say that reviewers should:

• Make sure they have time to do a proper critique before they take it on
• Not critique work unless they have the necessary expertise in the subject matter
• Read the work thoroughly
• Make constructive comments about the text, not personal comments about the writer
• Give their feedback within a reasonable length of time
• Keep the work, and their feedback, confidential

In my experience, reviewers’ comments generally come in some time after the agreed deadline. Coincidentally, as I was thinking about this subject, the amusing Twitter account @AcademicsSay tweeted:

I will confess to a few sleepless nights and chewed fingernails while waiting for those overdue comments. I think this is partly because academic reviews are usually anonymous: the reviewers don’t know who wrote the text, and the writer doesn’t know who has reviewed it.

Accountability

There’s heaps of debate around the blind peer review system. For my part I would prefer to know who is reviewing my work, so that I could judge whether they have the necessary expertise, and could ask them to clarify anything I didn’t understand. I’d also be happy to be open as a reviewer. I think this would increase reviewers’ accountability, and make the possibility of vicious personal comments, alluded to by the CoPE guidelines above, vanishingly small.

Luckily for me, I’ve never been on the receiving end of destructive review comments – unlike unfortunate friends who have been reduced to tears and even put off writing altogether. I have had reviews which weren’t massively helpful, but not reviews which were actively unpleasant. Mostly my reviews have been truly helpful.

Even a helpful review isn’t always easy to use and process. I find reviewers’ comments fall into three broad categories:

1. YES! Brilliant idea, why didn’t I think of that? Implement.
2. NO! Reviewer’s got the wrong end of the stick. Ignore.
3. AARRGGHH! Reviewer may well be right, but I need to do more reading and thinking before I can decide.

You might think the YES! comments are the best ones, but actually the AARRGGHH! comments are often more help in the long run. I’ve just been dealing with one of those for my next book. It involved reading (which meant buying) two new books, quite demanding ones at that. Also thinking hard about what the reviewer said, what the books said, and what I was trying to say.

“try to make considered rather than knee-jerk decisions”

The process was expensive and made my brain hurt, and I confess that at times I felt like cursing the reviewers. But the net result was a couple of new paragraphs written – quite important ones, too – and some useful learning for me.

It’s important to have a strategy for dealing with feedback. When I get reviewers’ comments, I read them carefully and take time to digest them. Then I write a to-do list based on the comments. Even where I think a reviewer has got the wrong end of the stick, I aim to give careful consideration to their suggestion, in case my response is actually knee-jerk defensiveness (I hate to admit it, but…!). So I will add ‘consider reviewer’s suggestion about X’ to my to-do list, because in a day or two that suggestion may look much more plausible.

If reviewers disagree with each other, it’s up to me to decide what to do. But, again, I try to make this a considered rather than a knee-jerk decision. Say reviewer 1 thinks a section of my work is irrelevant and should be deleted, while reviewer 2 thinks it is seminal and should be expanded. This tells me that the section in question elicits strong opinions, which probably means it has some value. Thinking about reviewers’ feedback in the light of their other comments can provide clues about how to go forward. It is often possible to work out a reviewer’s standpoint by the comments they make and the literature they recommend, which can offer useful context for a writer’s decisions.

As the writer, the final decision is mine. But I do know that the more effort I can see a reviewer has put into their work, the more I want to do justice to their input. As with any gift, often it’s the amount of thought that goes into it that makes all the difference.

More debate on peer reviewing (let us know your thoughts in the comments section below too!)

Weighing up double-blind peer reviews

More blog shaped words from Helen can be found here:

EXCITING NEWS KLAXON!!!

That difficult second research book

Three compromises you have to make when writing a book

How much pre-writing research do you have to do?

Where does a book begin?

What, another blog on academic writing?!!!

A year in the life of an academic writer: About Helen Kara

And some books by the same author:

Research and evaluation for busy practitioners

Policy Press bytes

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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