I like to think of myself as a reasonable person, able to take criticism and comment in a level-headed manner and willing to change and adapt my behaviour and plans in light of targeted advice or critique. There is, however, something uniquely excruciating for me about receiving and reading comments from peer reviewers. I just don’t know what it is! And it’s not like I haven’t gone through it enough to get acclimatised to the process, having had about twenty chapters or articles go through peer review so far in my academic career. Seeing as though I have more going through the pipeline right now, I’m thankful that the Doctoral College give out squeezable stress bricks at their open-day events. I have two of those on my desk as I type – perhaps I’m going to need them!
Upon reflection, I think the close relationship between my personal passions and my academic work has not always been conducive to dealing effectively with criticism of my publications. I spent much of my PhD living in Germany and then my postdoctoral career touring the states of the Baltic and Central Europe, visiting over 60 archives and research institutions in a broad swathe reaching from Tallinn in Estonia from the north-east down in a south-westerly direction through Latvia, Poland, and Germany, until eventually stopping at Basel in Switzerland. I am, at heart, passionate about integrating the histories and cultures and languages of Central Europe into the broader western European mainstream and my academic work is undertaken with that aim in mind. Much of my outreach work has been directed at doing precisely this as well, and giving invited lectures first at the embassy of the Slovak Republic and then at the embassy of Czech Republic have been some of the proudest moments of my life. Perhaps criticisms of my academic work strike all the harder because it has, for good or ill, been tied so closely with my personal interests. Then again, writing is an intensely personal activity and one’s writings do bear the mark of one’s soul, after all! Perhaps, then, I am hardly unusual in taking criticism of such a personal output so seriously.
I published my first peer-reviewed articles as a PhD student, which (unfortunately!) was a long time ago now, but I do think I have improved in how I respond to key stages in the peer-review process, and below are some thoughts on how I deal with the often irritating comments from the peer-reviewers and editors.
Take plenty of time to consider peer-reviewer feedback before you respond
Of course, this isn’t exactly easy to do. Given the pressure to publish, it is tempting to read the review comments and respond straight away, in the hope that you can get any corrections done ASAP and keep the article moving through the production line. Sometimes you have also been waiting for months (if not longer) for the editors of the journal to get back to you with the comments from peer-reviewers, so you are chomping at the bit to get going again. Taking some time to digest the comments of peer reviewers affords you the opportunity to reflect on their criticisms. Sometimes they are not as severe as they initially first seem and only require cosmetic or minor changes to your piece. You can also reflect on the more major criticisms (if there are any) and ask the editor to clarify just what they might entail or mean when revising your piece.
Peer-reviewers often have not read your work in the same detail as you have
A particularly infuriating comment to get from peer reviewers runs along the lines of ‘the author has failed to consider X’, or ‘the author has not consulted the work of Y’, or ‘the author needs to clarify his use of Z’, when in your article you have of course considered X, consulted Y, and clarified your use of Z, often in depth and with nuance. It is frustrating because it suggests that the peer reviewers have not read your work in the detail it deserves and have then proceeded to make unfounded criticisms. I suppose there are two points to take away from such critique. The first is that you should make clear to the editor that you have indeed already done the things the peer reviewers have suggested. The second is that perhaps you need to foreground the points which the peer reviewers have missed, not for their benefit, but for the benefit of future readers. Not all people will read through your piece with a fine-tooth comb, and it may be here that the peer review critique grants a precious insight into the major takeaway points that the general reader will take away from a quick read of your article. Perhaps if the peer reviewers missed a couple of key points then future readers will as well, so you might want to make these points more salient when revising your piece.
At the end of the day, it’s your article
If peer reviewers demand substantial revisions before you can resubmit your article and you feel that following their advice would begin to steer you in a direction that you never wanted to take with your piece, then perhaps it’s time to take your hard work elsewhere. On several occasions I have felt that peer reviewers simply did not ‘get’ my article and instead wanted me to write a different sort of piece, something probably more aligned with their own interests or research agendas. If you want to take your work elsewhere then you should, but you just need to ensure that you communicate that to the editor. I generally emailed the journal editor thanking them for their time and the useful feedback, but telling them that I was going to explore other opportunities for publication. I always got a gracious reply, wishing me all the best for my future plans. It can feel a bit wrenching to start over, submitting the publication to a fresh journal and having to go through the whole process again, but on every occasion I have done so it has paid off.
I hope these small bits of advice help those currently going through the peer review process. I also wish a very happy and productive AcWriMo to any who might read this blog. I hope you find time to write every day, that any publications you might submit get a fair hearing, and that (not least!) peer reviewers respond with constructive and helpful comments!
Dr Mark Whelan, Researcher Development Training Officer, Doctoral College