How to deal with Conflicting Peer Review Comments
Understanding why and how peer review conflicts arise
For manuscripts that survive the initial desk rejection phase (or clear the desk screening, to put it positively), most journals send each manuscript for review to at least two reviewers (and often, many more). Although reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the topic of the manuscript they are requested to review, their perspectives, concerns, sub-specialities and even temperaments may differ.
In fact, the reviewers are usually chosen for their specific areas of expertise. For example, consider a manuscript about a novel approach to controlling air pollution.
One reviewer may be an expert in assessing the impact of different pollutants.
Another reviewer’s expertise may lie in the techniques of determining the quantities of different pollutants in a sample.
It is also possible that a given manuscript is reviewed by one set of reviewers for the first review, and by one or more completely different reviewers during subsequent reviews.
The outcome of the above differences is that authors can be pulled in different directions in terms of revising their manuscripts in the light of the comments from reviewers. This article offers you some tips on how to handle that situation and respond to the reviews effectively.
Dealing with conflicting peer review comments
1. Be clear what journal editors expect of you
Many authors mistakenly think that in revising their manuscripts following peer review, they should accept all the suggestions, and agree to every observation made by the reviewers. Given this assumption, authors often find it difficult to reconcile the differences between reviewers apparent in their comments. Instead, as an author, you should understand that the real objective is to convince the journal’s editor that every concern expressed by every reviewer has been carefully considered and addressed – but not necessarily agreed with.
2. Seek input from your author team
Two (or more) heads are better than one. Confer with your co-authors. Their perspectives may yield insights on how to understand and respond to conflicting reviewer comments.
3. Seek help from the journal’s editor
If you are unable to resolve the conflicting comments adequately, consider consulting the editor. For example, if Reviewer 1 recommends repeating the experiment at temperatures lower than those you used and Reviewer 2 recommends higher temperatures – and each offers valid reasons for the recommendation – you should first attempt to justify your choice and then ask the editor, who may decide to assign a fresh reviewer on this point.
4. Don't compromise on your (research) integrity
It may be tempting to cut corners in demonstrating that every concern has been addressed. For example, if a reviewer has suggested an additional experiment – one that can be performed quite easily – which you as the author consider unnecessary, do not conduct the suggested experiment hurriedly or haphazardly and include the results merely to satisfy the reviewer. Instead, explain why the experiment is outside the scope of your paper and that your conclusions are adequately supported by existing data.
5. Be polite but firm
Extending from the previous suggestion, if you believe some of the comments to be impractical or even based on misunderstanding of the research objective, explain your stand clearly but politely (and refrain from commenting on the reviewer).
6. Respond to the conflicting comments in a separate note to the editor
In the main response to the reviewers’ comments, address each comment separately and avoid playing off the conflicting comments to your advantage. For the main response, a tabular format is particularly useful (as explained in this article: How to write an effective Revisions letter).
However, in a separate note to the editor, focusing exclusively on the conflicting comments, explain how you have addressed them and why you favoured one view over the other. Remember that the editor is better placed to consider this note because, presumably, it was the editor who chose the reviewers for their respective expertise.
7. Choose 'gain over pain'
Above all, instead of letting yourself be annoyed by the conflicting recommendations, use them to expand your understanding of the topic.
If you pay careful attention to implementing the above suggestions, you may end up being less afflicted by conflicting peer review comments and get closer to your goal of publication. All the best for handling this crucial phase of your submission!
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