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Effectively Respond to Undesirable Peer Review Comments

The peer review process of academic journals can be visualised as a funnel. Most submissions go no further than the first round of peer review; most are rejected. An increasingly smaller percentage of papers, however, survive successive rounds of review until the select few make the cut and are accepted. Almost every accepted paper undergoes at least one round of revision, and often multiple rounds. As an author, consider it a success if you receive a request to revise your manuscript.

Journal reviewers and editors endeavour to make the revision process a constructive enterprise. They see promise in a submission, but also room or need for improvement in one or more ways. To that end, they request that authors revise their papers.

Ideally, the review process is a partnership between journals and authors. On the one hand, journals want the best papers, and want to help authors achieve the full potential for each manuscript. On the other hand, authors want their papers accepted, and need to revise their papers as journals specify. Usually, it is a dispassionate and rather congenial affair.

In recent years, the purposes and processes of peer review have expanded beyond the strict evaluation of data in submitted manuscripts. Factors such as identity, diversity and inclusion figure into the peer review process. As a result, research literature reflects and amplifies diverse voices.

However, what happens when a journal requests "undesirable" revisions? Below are three scenarios, and suggestions for how best to navigate them.

Scenario 1: What should you do if peer reviewers give contradictory or different comments/reviews from each other?

That this situation occurs is understandable. Most peer review processes involve reviewers who evaluate submissions independently of each other. Depending on their subspecialty and academic focus, reviewers for the same manuscript may judge a paper using different criteria and request different or contradictory points of clarification or revision. As journals champion ever-greater diversity, reviewers with increasingly diverse identities will inevitably provide novel and possibly contradictory revision requests. Is this messy? Definitely. Will the resultant added layers of diversity and perspective be worth it? Absolutely!

When this situation happens, authors have options. First, the author team should collectively discuss the reviewer comments. What one author sees as contradictory may not appear so to another; a multiplicity of author input created the paper in the first place and will aid in successful revision.

Next, determine whether you can make the most important requested revisions. If you can't address every concern, can you at least address the major ones?

Third, try to harmonise the contradictory reviews. In your revision letter, politely point out the contradiction (which may not have been apparent to the editorial office) and indicate a proposed solution.

Always acknowledge every comment from every reviewer with respect and explain how you attempted to meet their requested revisions. Even if you can't make a requested change, you will show that you took the reviewer seriously. As a last resort, if the comments appear irreconcilable, inform the journal's editorial office of the contradictions and seek their advice on how to proceed.

Scenario 2: What should you do if your co-authors and you strongly disagree with peer reviewer comments?

Like the previous scenario, this situation occurs with some degree of regularity. Asking some questions may help bring clarity: are you and your coauthors reacting emotionally? After all, you invested non-trivial time and effort into your manuscript, and to your eyes, it may be a veritable masterpiece. You may be thinking: ‘Who are these reviewers to request such changes?’

It may be best to step back for a few days, gain perspective and then re-read the reviewer comments with fresh and more objective eyes. Could it be that the reviewers simply didn't understand and need clarity? It may be possible to explain your perspective in your revision letter, and re-word your manuscript to provide better understanding.

Third, would it violate your conscience or misrepresent your data if you edited the manuscript as requested by the reviewers? If not, and if your goal is to publish your research, it may be best to revise as requested. Lastly, if your disagreements with the reviewer comments persist, contact the journal's editorial office with your concerns and ask for their advice.

Scenario 3: How do you deal with unprofessional, rude or unconstructive comments from a reviewer?

Editorial offices strive to edit out these types of comments, but on rare occasions they do make it to an author. How should an author respond?

It's helpful to remember that reviewers are people too and can have a bad day. If it is possible to overlook an errant or unconstructive reviewer comment, conferring such grace may be the ideal way to proceed. If the review has multiple such comments, or if comments are rude, racist, sexist or unprofessional, however, a larger issue is at hand.

Contacting the journal's editorial office is necessary; they will guide you on how to address such comments. Journal editors take such complaints very seriously. There is no place for such reviewer behaviour or comments in academic publishing.

In conclusion

Navigating such revision scenarios can be challenging but following these steps will help improve your chances and enable your paper to succeed in making its way through the narrow funnel of acceptance and publication.


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