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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question focuses on how to deal with crazy comments from peers. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
Are you an academic getting negative comments on articles you’ve submitted to a peer-reviewed journal? That’s the topic I’ll be addressing today in The Write Question. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant, the Publication Coach.
Here’s a question from Isbaella Garcia, an academic based in Houston, Texas. Here’s what she wrote in an email:
“I need to submit articles to peer reviewed journals and I find the process deeply traumatic. Some of the comments I receive are just flat out rude. Others are stupid or ill-advised. And — here’s my biggest frustration — some of the ‘suggestions’ from different reviewers contradict each other. I don’t know what to do. I HAVE to participate in this crazy process because my university requires me to have articles published in peer reviewed journals. Help!”
Thanks for the question, Isabella. For viewers who aren’t academics, peer-reviewed journals are set up quite differently from magazines you might buy at a newsstand. Of course, they have editors but these editors also send each piece to several experts in the field before deciding whether to publish. The idea is to help ensure the article’s quality Those experts are your peers — hence the name “peer reviewed.”
But, of course, there are downsides to this system. The peer reviewers usually don’t have any training or experience at editing. As a result, some of their suggestions may be totally wrong-headed and they probably won’t explain them in the most gracious way.
Even worse, they may have petty concerns. For example, they may be upset that you didn’t cite them in your paper. Or they may dislike — for personal reasons — some of the other people you’ve cited. This type of pettiness seems to fuel of much academic life and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it to survive.
Here’s what I suggest: If you receive a bunch of nasty comments from reviewers but the editor invites you to revise and resubmit, respond immediately by saying “yes, thanks, I will.” And then tell the editor the date by which you’ll be able to get the revised manuscript back to them.
There is no point in complaining about any of the comments made by the reviewers, no matter how crazy they might be. If you need to rant, rant to your partner or a friend, not to the editor or the peers.
Then, choose three to five of each reviewer’s least-objectionable suggestions and follow them completely. Make these changes as obvious as you can, for example, by including the new citations they suggest, adding tables, doing whatever you can to make your changes apparent to someone who is only scanning the article. Or, more realistically, scanning to see if you’ve accepted their changes.
Feel free to ignore suggestions that are totally crazy or inappropriate but — and this is important — don’t badmouth the reviewer. Be quiet and meek about your decision to ignore.
Where you have two reviewers who present contradictory advice, well, then, choose the advice that appeals most to you. Again, there is no need to justify why you’ve made this choice. After all, you are the author and the editor will understand what you’re doing.
Finally, when you’ve made all the changes, prepare a brief document that OUTLINES these changes. It should be a kind of a map for your editor and reviewers, showing all the additional work you’ve done. Again, don’t complain about this work. Instead, just thank the editor for the opportunity and thank the reviewers for their feedback.
To be fair, the job of being a peer reviewer is a tough and time-consuming one. I’m including a link below from the Wiley publishing company outlining all the steps a good peer reviewer is expected to take.
I know this system seems crazy, Isabella, and in many ways, it is. But until you are a well-established academic, you’ll have no ability to change it from the outside. Instead, figure out how to work within the system so you can collect all the publishing credits you need.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from the academic and memoirist Tara Westover: “Academic writing is such a different way of writing.”
Isabella, don’t start using words like “good” or “bad” to describe your own writing for peer-reviewed journals. There is only one standard: will your piece be accepted? Do whatever it takes to get it accepted. The process will get easier with time. And once you become an academic super star, you can start working to try to change the system from within.