Managing peer review as an ECR: Learning to communicate effectively with editors
Peer review is the cornerstone of academic publishing, the process by which research manuscripts submitted to journals are appraised. Based on the comments of ‘peer reviewers’, journal editors make decisions about whether, or not, to accept articles for publication.
Once a paper is written and passed to a journal’s editorial office, the editor will decide whether, or not, to send it out for further review. The act of peer review itself means that an article is being considered for potential publication: thus, when submitting to the big journals, like Nature or Science (where initial rejection rates can be up to 95%), the mere act of reaching the peer review stage can be a cause for celebration.
Peer review as a key transferable skill
Performing peer review is an important transferable skill. Learning to be an effective peer reviewer means learning to assess the work of others critically in a positive and meaningful way. This involves helping colleagues to improve their written and oral presentations based on your expertise and experience. The aim is to develop evaluation skills that support the objectives of others.
We’ve all been in this position as academic authors:
- Receiving comments back from a journal editor on a manuscript we submitted some weeks, even months, earlier
- What should you do next?
- What do the comments that come back from peer reviewers via journal editors actually mean?
- Perhaps most importantly: How should you respond?
- What are the key issues to keep in mind?
What should you do when review comments come back? How should you manage peer review as an early career researcher (ECR)?
Once reviewed, a paper will come back from a journal with one of four decisions:
The first and last of these outcomes are rare following an initial round of review because of ‘editorial triage’: if an editor was going to reject, they would likely have done this before sending your paper out for peer review. At the same time, peer reviewers are people too and as such will be looking for issues with your work (rather than thinking ‘how can I help these authors to get their work published’): they will almost certainly request revisions and thus outright acceptance after initial peer review is also very unusual.
In other words: expect to be asked to make changes to your paper.
When you do get comments back from a journal (Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, etc), the most important thing to do is show the editor you are taking this process seriously. Create a response document (we can give you a template) that:
- has a short summary at the top describing all the changes you made to your paper, and
- inter-weaves your comments underneath each of the proposed reviewer comments.
People usually use a different colour or font when they do this. Make sure to address all of the comments, even the really small ones (spelling mistakes, formatting issues) because this will help to show you are taking the process seriously. Be polite, address all comments to the editor and use phrases like ‘great comment’, ‘thanks for this really helpful comment’ and ‘thanks for the time you spent working on our paper’. This approach means that when your peer reviewers see your comments and read your responses, their view is more likely to be positive: they will feel better and more favourable towards your article and are more likely to eventually hit ‘accept’.
Take a careful look at the wording in your email back from the editor.
A response requiring ‘minor revisions’ means that your article, comments and responses to reviewers will likely not be going back out again to the same initial peer reviewers, while a response of ‘major revisions’ almost certainly will be. The latter means that substantial changes are required to your article, or one (or both) of the reviewers have identified serious issues that need to be addressed: the editor will want to check back with the reviewers to ensure that the changes asked for have been made, or at least addressed in a convincing fashion. This key difference in the form of comments is well worth keeping in mind when working on your responses.
Usually an editor will have asked four or more colleagues to act as peer reviewers for your paper and then acted when two or three sets of comments have come back. Editors do this in order to speed up the process of peer review. Two sets of comments that agree with one another (both asking for minor changes, for example) would be enough for an editor to act, while two sets that disagree (one reviewer finds the paper to be good, while the other asks for large-scale changes) would necessitate a third set of comments. One reason your paper might have been delayed with a journal and so you have not heard back for a while may be due to conflict between peer reviewers. Editors usually do their best to speed up the peer review process; you can always write and ask about delays, but do it in a positive way and make suggestions for additional colleagues who might be suitable to act as reviewers. [We have templates we can share with you to help you write these kinds of emails.]
What about comments you don’t agree with?
Very often peer review comments (or editorial comments) will come back about your work that you simply don’t agree with, or think are just plain incorrect. In these cases, take a step back: wait for a few days and then carefully construct a response that is measured and logical. Why do you disagree? What is it about the comments that you don’t agree with in particular? If you can back up your statements with references and data, remain polite and address your concerns to the editor, and you are likely to win the argument and convince the journal that your paper can proceed without the need to make this particular change.
Communicating with editors
Your editor will have assessed the comments that come back from the peer reviewers and made a decision as to which are the most important for you to address. Take another careful look at the email letter that has come back from the journal as often editors will write which comments, or parts of comments, they feel are more important for you to address and which are less so. If they did not, and you feel there is conflict over some comments made by the peer reviewers, you can always write and ask: editors appreciate clear and open communication from authors.
Why not email?
‘Thank you for the detailed and extensive comments on our paper. We wanted to know which of the comments would be most important for us to address in our revisions’.
‘We found some of the reviewers comments to be unnecessary (for these detailed reasons), do you feel that we really need to make these changes? We would appreciate your insights on this issue before we start to work on our revised manuscript’.
We are all busy, working academic researchers. Keep in mind that editors at most journals (almost all, apart from the very top tier, like Nature and Science) are also working academics, managing their own research and teams. Everyone appreciates open and honest communication: there is no reason to not write to editors to ask about decisions and to ask for more information, when necessary. Often, decisions can be changed and even rejection from a particular journal does not mean the end of the road.
Why not ask the editor:
‘even though our paper has been rejected this time, if we are able to improve it and fully incorporate all of the changes requested by the reviewers, would you consider a resubmission?’
Often, again, their answer will be: ‘yes’.
How can we help?
Getting your work into leading journals involves good science, but it can also involve a little gamesmanship and communication. Our team can help. Why not get in touch with a member of our Charlesworth Author Services team for more information, and get your writing, cover letters, and review response documents edited and polished by one of our PhD-level specialists working in your research field? To find out more click here.
Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing, and maximise your potential as a researcher.
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