peer review for journal articles

Peer review for journal articles: responding to feedback

The theme here is a closer look at the review process for journal articles, which can be both insightful and challenging. First let’s look at some advice for reviewers which is provided by a journal, then some advice for writers in dealing with peer review feedback.

What makes for a good (or not so good) review?

Some of the key points a reviewer will address are:
– Is the research novel?
– Does the title clearly reflect the article’s contents?
– Is the abstract a clear summary?
– Is the relevant previous research well described and the knowledge gap clearly articulated?
– Are the objectives well defined?
– Is the applied research methodology solid?
– Are the results reliable and have the objectives been reached?
– Are the appropriate limitations mentioned?
– Are the conclusions justified?

Bert Blocken, an editor involved with several journals, urges reviewers to set aside the time to give back detailed and precise feedback, within the agreed deadlines. It is pretty clear from his remarks that this might not always happen. He adds:

“Good ingredients for a truly terrible peer review are unclear, unfair and biased statements.”

Sometimes you will receive perfectly clear comments from one reviewer but very subjective ones from another. I have seen statements like “The author has tried to achieve too much”, “The theoretical exposition is confusingly complex”, “The methodology is not solid”.

Perhaps you will have the feeling, as one of my clients stated “Some people really have nothing else to say”. 

Blocken urges suggestions for how to improve something, not simply pointing to what is considered insufficient. He also proposes specifically highlighting what has been done well. Recommending particular citations unless completely relevant is discouraged. The complete article is very honest in showing his frustration about poor ethical practices. However, as we know, a lot of feedback is very constructive and peer review is an ongoing process which is an integral part of the process of publication in academic journals. So let’s take the positives from this.

How might you respond to your peer review?

I have seen many variations in responses. In terms of the format, for clarity, normally researchers present a table, with the reviewer’s comment lined up next to or above their own response to it. When a similar comment is made by two reviewers, researchers refer to their first answer. Some are polite enough to thank the reviewer before offering each response.

Often there are methodological issues: the sample size may not be sufficient for your claims, the protocols and research design may be unclear, some ambiguity may arise concerning statistics. Some reviewers start with the methods, then move on to the results analysis and conclusion to see if the conclusions look a little overstated. Correcting issues like this can be sorted out reasonably quickly with the right approach and language.

The content of your response is up to you. I am sure you all agree that it is best to leave a space between receiving the review and starting to respond to it. After all, you put a lot of time and effort into the journal article before sending it for review.

Even if the reviewer has been vague, it looks better if you are as clear as possible. This might mean pointing to a couple of sentences you have added, or a particular table that it seems the reviewer has not checked thoroughly.  Copy and paste the updated text into your response and state the page and perhaps the paragraph.

You might prefer to disagree with the comment and simply back this up with some evidence.

You are not obliged to include references which are not specifically related to your identified research gap. You are also not obliged to respond to every tiny comment (especially if it is vague or a repetition of an earlier point). It will look polite and complete if you actually include all comments made by the reviewer. In your responses you should avoid defending yourself against minor issues if they are consistently repetitive. There is the option to merge responses to a series of minor feedback points but this needs to be done with some care.

Cathy Mazak has some very frank advice about how to deal with the not so ideal reviewer.  Below is a summary, with some comments from my own experience.

The posturer: This person wants to show that s/he knows more about the subject than you do. Often this means the comments are not actually about what you have written, but what they would have written.

Response: You could try something like “while I appreciate the reviewer’s suggestion to include … in my article” (then give the reason or reasons why you have not). This could extend to the content as well as the citations.

The silencer: (Interestingly, Bert Blocken also wrote about this type of reviewer too). This person may even go as far as to recommend you should not be published because s/he does not agree with your main idea or perhaps your approach. Often the comments can look like a detailed series of negatives about perceived faults in your research.

Response: See these for what they are. Do not fall into the trap of engaging with minor issues. Repeat your main points and why they are justified. (Yes, this is a repeat of a point I made earlier, but it is worth restating).

What else is helpful in responding to peer reviews?

It might seem perfectly obvious, but we often forget to focus on the positives. Make a list of all the good points mentioned in the review (and keep in mind that reviewers are specifically asked to look for and comment on these). It is encouraging for you to do this first before drawing up the list of what you need to respond to.

Check your “to do” list and separate the simpler issues from the more complex ones. You might prefer to work on the easier ones first. When you look at the ones which will take longer (a more complete literature review or further analysis of your data), try to figure out how you will address them efficiently, yet with sufficient attention to make the next part of the process very smooth.

Mostly comments from reviewers are given with the best of intentions and can help you to take a fresh look at your work. Ask for help if you need it. It’s out there.

Finally, Catherine Carnovale, a publisher at Elsevier, suggests that, to streamline the process at the other end, your complete response should include: a cover letter, a list of reviewers’ comments with your responses next to or underneath them, your revised article with track changes and a clean copy of the revised article.

This might take a little longer to prepare and here is some good advice about the cover letter or email. If it means your article gets some priority because it is easier to manage, then it is well worth it.