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The art of responding to peer reviews

Understanding and engaging reviewers is key to winning the confidence of editorial boards

By FRANCINE MCKENZIE | October 16, 2009

In the 1990s, when I was a doctoral student in Britain, I did not think seriously about publishing my work. I assumed my thesis would become a book, but I was not sure what that would entail. When I returned to Canada, PhD in hand but jobless, I soon realized that without publications my academic career would be stalled. So, I turned one chapter of my thesis into an article and I began to revise a conference paper for an edited collection. When I submitted these papers, I was still without a clue about the next, and crucial, stage: the peer review – the two critical readings of your manuscript that inform an editorial board’s decision whether or not to publish your work.

My reviewers wrote that some points needed to be clarified, queried some of my insights and offered different interpretations from mine. They pointed out rough writing patches and passed judgment on whether my work was publishable. The assessments were clear, but I was perplexed about how to respond to them. Who were the reviewers and what was their relation to me? Were we adversaries, or were they more like mentors? Presumably, they had more experience publishing than I had. Did that make their interpretations more credible than mine? Did I have to make every change they suggested?

Navigating through this part of the publication process can be tricky. In the hope of shortening the learning curve of scholars just starting to publish, I would like to share a few insights from my own experience about how to survive and benefit from peer reviews.

Perfunctory vs. engaged reviews

There are two basic categories of assessments: perfunctory and engaged. In the perfunctory category, a review can be praiseworthy or dismissive. But perfunctory reviews, whether positive or negative, are not very helpful to the author. Even if full of praise, the reviewer has not usually put much thought into the task. Doubt reviewers who do not make suggestions for improvement. An added problem with the dismissive perfunctory report: it is not obvious what the reviewer did not like, so you do not know what to revise to get it into publishable condition.

When an engaged reviewer puts serious time and thought into a paper or book, there is still a spectrum of possible assessments, including those that are: insightful and intellectually generous with suggestions to make the work stronger; constructively critical but matter-of-fact in raising substantive problems with the work; and critical because the reviewer has misunderstood the terms and purpose of the argument.

Responding to the reviews

With the readers’ reports in hand, the next step is to prepare a response for the editor or the publication board. Your challenge is to win their confidence. There is an art to responding to reviewers, especially if the reviewers disagree with one another, which is often the case. It is common for an article or monograph to receive one enthusiastic “yes” to publishing and one firm “no.” Even worse is when the reviewers disagree about the same part of the paper or book: Reviewer A says the second chapter should be cut entirely, whereas Reviewer B insists that same chapter is the strongest part of the argument. The reviewers can also understand the topic in totally different ways, a response that is especially common for interdisciplinary scholarship.

Different types of engaged reviews require different kinds of responses. If the reviewer points to literature, studies or data that reinforce the argument, you must follow up. The reviewer’s intention is to make your work better and it would be foolhardy not to accept their generosity. Depending what stage you are at in your career, you might be impatient to publish. But you need to take the time to learn from their suggestions: it will make the work stronger, and it is gratifying to participate in that kind of scholarly exchange.

If the reviewer has identified problems with the paper or book, your response can go in two directions. Sometimes, you need to rethink a point or element of your interpretation. Don’t be defensive: this prevents you from appreciating the value of the criticism. Although all criticisms require careful reflection, you do not have to accept all of them. But if you decide not to make a suggested revision, you will need to explain your decision. This requires a blend of tact and forcefulness. As a reviewer, I have frequently suggested revisions. When the author has explained thoughtfully and convincingly why she or he has not accepted them, I have been positively impressed.

The kind of assessment that I find most intriguing, and curiously helpful, is when the reviewer has misunderstood my argument, at least as I see it. This kind of assessment happens when the reviewer conflates the role of author and assessor. Their assessment reveals how they would have written on the topic. By doing this, they highlight the assumptions and expectations that can interfere with the understanding, and reception, of the work. A few years ago, I compared state-to-state relations between Britain on the one hand and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on the other. One reviewer concluded that my article should not be published because I had not included India. But to my way of thinking, India’s relationship with Britain was sui generis and not comparable with these other Commonwealth countries. When I revised the paper for another journal, I inserted a paragraph explaining why India was not included. That pre-empted criticism and clearly established the terms of my argument, and the paper sailed through the peer review process.

Running the peer review gauntlet is an academic ritual, performed over and over again no matter how well published you are. You won’t always like the reviews, but you can always learn from them. Take time to respond, even if you are in a hurry to publish. Be confident about defending your ideas; it is your name that will appear on the published work, not those of the reviewers. Be gracious even if you disagree with the reviewer. Finally, keep in mind that going through the review process is an apprenticeship of the trial-by-fire variety for when you become a reviewer.

Francine McKenzie is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Western Ontario.

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