Covid and peer review

I have avoided writing about the pandemic in an effort to stay positive. As its effects linger, it is probably time to look at some of them. Covid has disrupted or reorganised our work in countless ways, some wonderful, others terrible. This time we are looking the peer review process for journals and responding to reviewers’ comments for authors who write as a group. One thing is certain, the pandemic has meant that fewer people are available at any given time to manage work, usually with fewer resources as well.

Previously I have given some general advice on responding to reviewers’ comments and an outline of different kinds of peer reviews and what reviewers are told to look for.

The peer review process itself has been interrupted by the pandemic and so has working within research groups, one outcome of which is published research.

Peer review disruption

For many journal publishers, it has been difficult to find reviewers who can work consistently. They may not be available to check the responses you provide to their comments. In this case, other reviewers will be called in who look at your document with fresh eyes. They are likely to make further comments rather than just picking up from where the previous reviewers left off.

This prompts another cycle of responding to comments about revisions, possibly followed by more new reviewers checking these responses. Some recent clients have received feedback from six and even nine different reviewers.

Coordination of peer review responses

As you know, when many authors contribute to a single article, the work is usually carved up in a straightforward way, with different writers for various sections and one principal author setting negotiated timelines and coordinating the flow of this work. When it comes to responding to peer review feedback there are two main ways this happens.

Either the principal author asks the contributors to send in their responses and explanations to reviewers to them alone and subsequently develops the response document from this.

Alternatively, every author contributes their responses and explanations to reviewers in a shared document, like a Google doc, so everyone sees what everyone else is writing. The principal author then edits the final response document.

There are pluses and minuses for each approach. If the research aims, methodology and analytical approach are straightforward, hopefully either approach works well. If there is a lack of consensus about what to emphasise, the lead author needs to take control very firmly. The lead author is likely to reassure co-authors that there will be other opportunities to develop another article with a different emphasis.

In both cases, a general edit by a professional might be needed to highlight and smooth over inconsistencies in the writing tone, the version of English spelling, the referencing style and other discrepancies that might emerge.