Responding to Reviewers

Part 5 in a 7 part series on the work of academic journal editing by ATP Editor in Cheif, Staci Zavatarro.

            Another commonly asked question I saw on Twitter was how to respond to peer review comments. Just as we as academics are often not taught how to write a constructive peer review, we are also not taught how to reply. Most journals, ATP included, require all revised submissions to have something called a response to the reviewers. There is no set way this is done, but essentially the document is a detailed description of how you addressed – or not – the comments from the peer reviewers. As authors, we have all received reviews that were confusing, not helpful, or contradictory. Figuring out how to respond to those is also part of the process for authors, and while editors can and will provide some guidance, this exercise rests largely with the authors.

            I recognize this is not easy, and Frey (2003) notes there is a supply and demand issue that might force authors to make changes they do not want to as a way to appease reviewers and editors. Using a property rights frame, Frey (2003) notes reviewers do not have a right to the journal and its contents but do feel obligated to ensure work appearing in the journal meets a standard – and sometimes that standard is the personal one of the reviewer. Editors are responsible for the journal’s direction and its overall reputation, along with their personal reputation (Frey, 2003).

            If a paper receives a revise and resubmit, that is the author’s chance to address the peer review comments. I understand that there are some duds, but reviewers largely offer constructive feedback aiming to make the paper stronger. They are looking through a lens authors might not see or consider, and reviews are part of the connected, systemic nature of academic publishing (Raelin, 2008). How authors respond can make a difference. Being detailed in a response memo is key. (See for instance Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s website, and search “dealing with rejected papers” for a guide to responding to peer review.)

            As authors, people can push back on comments – but the key is making a coherent argument for the reviewer and editor why that change cannot be done. For example, a reviewer might ask you to write a completely different paper than you intended. In a response letter, explain why that is not possible. Offer citations to back up your case. Then explain why the current approach is the best. Editors and reviewers need to be convinced, so focusing on making an argument in your response letter.

            Do not ignore all the comments, as that is a way toward rejection. Also be detailed in the response letter with changes made to the manuscript. Peer reviewing well takes time, and it frustrates reviewers when all their comments are ignored without explanation. One of use received an author response that simply said “done” under each comment. Nothing more. That is hard to work with for reviewers and editors. Be clear. (A simple Google search reveals plenty of tips for writing a convincing response, and mentors can also help with this.)

            As can be seen, the writing and review processes are complex. Editors struggle with making decisions best for the authors and journals. I cover that in the next post.

References

Frey, B.S. (2003). Publishing as prostitution? – Choosing between one’s own ideas and academic success. Public Choice, 116, 205-223.
Raelin, J.A. (2008). Refereeing the game of peer review. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 7(1), 124-129.

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