If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you submit a manuscript for publication and get back a peer review that leaves you feeling frustrated. “This review doesn’t help me at all! It’s wrong! You complain, “how could a reviewer ever think that?”
Our peer review system works well, overall. But reviewers are human, just like the rest of us – so even the very best of them make mistakes, or have bad days. So you will get that seemingly unhelpful review. What then?
Step one: wait. Do not write the quick, snappy response that you want to. Instead, put the review away and don’t look at it again for at least a day or two. No matter how dispassionate we like to think we are, we’re human, and humans just aren’t good at weighing the merits of criticism on first receipt. If you really feel the need to vent, write something outside your e-mail program so you can’t send it by accident, and then delete it.
Step two: ask yourself whether the review really is unhelpful. Are you sure it’s really wrong? It might be, but you should seriously consider the possibility that you’re overreacting to some unfortunate phrasing cloaking a review that’s actually right. All of us overreact this way. I overreact almost every time I read a review, and if I didn’t watch myself, I’d dismiss every helpful criticism and my work would never improve. Set yourself a high bar for concluding if a review is unhelpful or wrong.
Step three: decide what kind of unhelpful you’re looking at. There are (at least) four different ways a review can be unhelpful, or inappropriate:
a) The reviewer mounts ad hominem attacks (criticises you rather than the manuscript).
b) The reviewer makes comments that suggest a conflict of interest.
c) The reviewer makes criticisms that are factually incorrect.
d) The reviewer makes criticisms that suggest they didn’t read the manuscript carefully.
Don’t rely only on your own judgement here: discuss the review with a colleague who isn’t involved with the manuscript, and who can be frank with you about it.
Step four: mount an appropriate response.
(a) The ad hominem review.
Personal attacks in a review are unprofessional. Ideally, you’d never see them because they’re redacted by an editor; but they aren’t always. If you do get reviewer comments of this sort, your Response to Reviews document should ignore the attacks. It should, though, answer all the substantive criticisms that accompany the ad hominem ones – the latter don’t earn you a free pass from the former. You can (and maybe should) send a separate note to the editor, explaining that you ignored the ad hominem attacks and were surprised they weren’t redacted. Think of this side letter as a contribution to improving our reviewing culture. If you’re an early-career author, you might prefer to ask a supervisor or mentor to send this message in your stead.
(b) The conflict-of-interest review.
This is the rarest type. It’s also the hardest to be sure of: most often, a review you think exhibits conflict of interest will be unsigned, and people’s attempts to guess the identities of anonymous reviewers mostly misfire. But if you’re sure, a conflict-of-interest review should be handled the same way as an ad hominem one.
(c) The factually-wrong review.
This is the easiest to deal with, but don’t let that make you cavalier. Your Response to Reviews should explain clearly and dispassionately what the reviewer got wrong, ideally backed up with citations. This is not a time to scold. Sure, the reviewer “should know” that cork oaks are evergreen, or that parametric ANOVA is robust to violations of its normality assumption. But saying so will only antagonise someone who could otherwise be your ally. Besides: do you want to restrict the audience for your paper to people who know all the things you think they should? Or would you rather let the reviewer’s mistake help you reach others who go similarly astray? Here’s a good response: “Reviewer #2 suggests that my interpretation doesn’t hold because X. Actually, X is incorrect (brief explanation and citation); but because I suspect other readers may have the same worry, I’ve revised the manuscript to address the issue at line xxx)”. You may think it’s unlikely that any other reader could misunderstand as terribly as the reviewer did. But you’re probably wrong; and even if you’re right, there’s nothing to be gained by pointing it out.
(d) The didn’t-read-it review.
After this review, you’ll be tempted to complain to the editor about the reviewer not doing their job. Don’t. Complaining won’t improve your paper – but a little reflection on why the reviewer didn’t read it thoroughly just might. After all, most reviewers approach a manuscript with the intent to read carefully. If they didn’t, perhaps your manuscript is less compelling than you’d like. If you’re losing reviewers, you’ll definitely lose readers! So think about what the reviewer didn’t read (or didn’t understand, or didn’t remember), and ask why. Did your organisation hide important material? Did your turgid writing make their eyes glaze over? Did you test their patience with three paragraphs where one would have done? Then sprinkle your Response to Reviews with bits like “Reviewer #2 thought X was a problem. Actually, I had explained why X is correct (lines xxx-yyy), but some poor organisation made that easy for a reader to miss. I’ve revised to make this more obvious”. Even if you don’t really think it was your fault, you’ve got nothing to lose and much to gain by pretending that you do.
All this advice has a couple of common threads. First: reviewers and editors are human. They make mistakes and have failings just like all of us. Second: with the right attitude to revision, the apparently unhelpful review is really a useful opportunity. Reviewers, in all their humanity, capture possible reactions of real readers – who are, after all, human too. A reviewer’s fumble can help you reach even those readers who might read you carelessly, or who have imperfect knowledge of your field. Those readers matter too.
For more advice in your academic career see:
- Top tips for academic mentoring
- Three key tips for successful grant-writing
- Using storytelling in teaching
- Research in Academic Careers