Responding to peer review: A guide to producing actionable knowledge to improve your work while keeping control of your research

Peer review is unavoidable in research. Whether in journal publishing, academic book contracts, or formal assessments throughout candidature (like proposal defence).

I find that my default is often to see reviewer comments as immovable truths about my (lack of) competence as a researcher, and a set of commands that I have to follow. I know both of these to be false, but still these creep into my mindset and the work to keep these unhelpful myths at bay is hard.

This blog post is for those of you who, like me, find responding to reviewer comments hard. I explain some strategies that I find useful, and present a downloadable template that you can use and adapt.

The key is to take back control

We need to be in control of two things:

  1. How we pay attention to reviewer comments. I find, at least in the first readings, that I’m not in control at all. It feels like a tidal wave of criticism hitting me from all sides. In later readings I need to wrest back control so I pay attention to what the reviewers wrote in ways that help me.
  2. Our research. Particularly in postgrad research (Masters, Doctorates) but really in all research, we need to be open to criticisms and ready to revise, but ultimately it is our research.

Change your relationship with the reviewer

The review is not some kind of automatic expression of universal truths about your work and how awful it is. It is the result of an interaction between what you wrote and someone who read it (or supposedly read it).

I find it helpful to personalise the reviewer, to see them as a human being just as flawed, tired, pressured, and biased as I am. To take control of how you pay attention to what they wrote, get to know them and put yourself in a position where you get to question and critique them – a more mutual relationship than expert powerful reviewer vs ignorant powerless author.

Reset your relationship with the reviewer to a more symmetrical and empowered one, where you get to know them and have permission to criticise what they wrote

Look for evidence that they might be from your field and really know their stuff (the literature, the methods, the theory etc), or for evidence that maybe they are coming at this from another ‘space’ – which might explain some of their comments.

Look for evidence that maybe they were having a bad day and might have been grumpier than is warranted (particularly in the way they expressed things).

Look for evidence that their writing not might be the most clear text (even while they might be criticising you for lack of clarity!). Yes, some reviews are badly written.

Produce actionable knowledge

Your job is not to figure out how to do everything the reviewer suggested, asked or ‘told’ you to do.

It is to figure out how to use what they wrote to identify changes you can make that you think improve and strengthen your work.

Expand possible meanings of the text

Pay deliberate attention to what the reviewer wrote in ways that enrich it with meaning. For example:

What comments do you find useful? Expand the meaning by reflecting on why – this will tell you something important about your study.

What comments do you find unhelpful? Expand the meaning by reflecting on why you think this, and also why someone else thought the opposite? Something happened there that you need to get to the bottom of.

What comments are ambiguous or unclear? Expand meaning by exploring alternative interpretations, reading between the lines, detecting the subtext.

Determine what to do next

Now, with this more empowered relationship with the reviewer, and expanded possible meanings of what they wrote, you are in a much better position to decide what to do next, while maintaining control over your research.

Hunt for the existing ‘gems’ – suggestions you have been given for free that actually help make your research better. Yay!

Hunt for things you can turn into gems. It might not be quite what the reviewer had in mind, but if instead of X1 you do X2 (a variation of X1), your work gets better…

Defend. In fact it is a double defence. The first is to be clear about why you’re not doing something the reviewer suggested. The second is to consider launching a pre-emptive counter-strike in your next draft to defend against that same criticism coming again in future. After all if this reviewer thought Y would be a good idea, it’s likely other readers will too.

Fix areas where the reviewer missed the point. You might have thought something was obvious, but the reviewer missed it. You might have thought something was easy or connected, but the reviewer found it hard or unrelated. Meta-text, signposts, and writing more for a general audience (rather than assumed expert in your field) can help.

Self-care when it makes sense. Sometimes it makes sense to make some changes that aren’t exactly what you’d like, but you can see it’s worth it on balance. Provided these don’t derail your research, provided they leave what matters to you intact, you might make changes for the sake of ease. Kind of ‘Sigh, I’m not really into that, but life will be a lot easier if I just do it’. I find I do this a lot of the time when reviewers want me to cite researchers who I don’t think are particularly relevant, but I realise if I don’t, readers will think I don’t know what I’m doing. Turn ‘giving in’ as ‘this is me picking my battles and doing a lovely bit of self-care’.

Over to you

I hope this might help make responding to peer reviews less something that ‘happens to you’ where the problem is ‘How do I do everything they asked?’. Instead, it might become something – still challenging – where the problem is ‘How do I work with the reviewer comments in ways that ultimately make my research better?’.

Key to this is paying attention in particular ways that put you in the driving seat, and bringing your own insights – perhaps helped by others – in figuring out what to do next.

Here is a word document that translates the points I’ve made above into a template that you can fill out. I find it helpful because it means I’m responding to my own words, my digest of what the reviewers said, rather than keep going back to the original reviews which are often: poorly written, vague, not pleasant to read, and by default, devoid of the crucial insights I bring to the process.

You can edit and adapt this (it’s a word document not a PDF).

I would love to hear if you find it helpful!

5 thoughts on “Responding to peer review: A guide to producing actionable knowledge to improve your work while keeping control of your research

  1. Beverley Southcott

    Dear Nick,

    Thank you very much for this email. It is very timely for me – in regards to my current research. Excellent help and a guide.

    I was already thinking along these lines in my thoughts to a recent peer review that contained a mixture of what to keep and adopt or not and where to strengthen and add clarity to my argument – therefore it’s great to see this written here. Plus where to from here to deepen/fix my research without losing my authenticity and research interests.

    With thanks – yours sincerely, Beverley Southcott Re: early researcher

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Reply
    1. Nick Hopwood Post author

      Hi Beverley – I really like how you framed that about keeping your ‘authenticity and research interests’ – that is capturing precisely what I was going for, and using better words than I did 🙂

      Reply
  2. Beverley Southcott

    I haven’t read the guide yet, this morning – just your email. Will do this, very soon.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Reply
  3. Theresa Winchester-Seeto

    Nick, how wonderful and this is a useful summary, even for one who now writes many reviews.

    I still find that when I get a review I usually first get irritated at the idiot reviewers, swear a lot, and mentally create all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments for reviewers. Then I park it in my bottom drawer (not literally of course).

    When I am calmer, with a coffee in my hand, I take another look to see what I can actually use. I usually find one third of comments don’t matter to me much (so I do them), one third are actually useful and make the paper better and one third are useless or not doable e.g. not enough data, not related to the actual paper I have written but to the paper reviewer would write etc. For these last, not-doable ones you can make a case to the editors for not doing the – this is usually OK if you have taken onboard enough of the other comments/suggestions. By the way, if the reviewer clearly hasn’t understood something, you must rewrite (as Nick said) it is not enough to just say reviewer is an idiot (tempting or accurate though that be).

    Nick, you are right in that reviewers are human and can be cranky – most, however, sincerely try to do a good job and be constructive. But authors can help the process by writing well and getting someone else to read it over before sending – this will help iron out the obvious bugs

    Theresa

    Reply
    1. Nick Hopwood Post author

      Hi
      Thanks Theresa! Your last comment makes me think of what Pat Thomson has written about as ‘early onset satisfaction’ – one of many reasons why papers might get submitted ‘too early’ (though I also worry a lot about papers that are submitted way too late or never due to perfectionism).

      Your 3 categories map really nicely onto what I wrote about – perhaps more elegantly, too! The ‘don’t matter so much’ mirror my comment about picking battles / self care moments. The ‘actually useful and make it better’ category – some of these are obvious and some might need some work to make them fall into that category. And then the residue, yes, the ones you defend and explain why not. That last one points to the craft of writing letters to the editor when we revise and resubmit – important texts, but not often exposed and unpacked for precisely that!

      Thanks for your comment, again

      Nick

      Reply

Please join in and leave a reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s