Mark Lenker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His research interests include information literacy, lifelong learning, and informed political participation. His peer-reviewed work has appeared in College and Research Libraries and in portal: Libraries and the Academy.
I am by no means a publishing dynamo, but I have written a handful of things that make me relatively happy, and a few of those pieces have made their way into peer-reviewed journals. For each of the peer-reviewed pieces, I have had to address reviewers’ comments. In each case, at least some of the reviewers’ comments made at least some aspects of my work significantly better.
I made the persnickety qualifications in the preceding sentence because peer-review is an imperfect process, as Kevin’s excellent post makes abundantly clear. But, on balance, it is extremely helpful to get feedback from reviewers who do not know who you are or anything about your previous work. Taken in the right spirit, the reviewers’ criticisms and suggestions can make your work much clearer and more compelling.
Here are a few things that I have learned from my various peer-review experiences:
Something’s off (probably):
If a reviewer comments on a particular aspect of your work, that most likely means that something is off with that part of the paper. If the reviewer did not have a smooth reading experience, chances are good that other readers will have an awkward experience as well. In all likelihood, you should do something to address the reviewer’s concerns.
Why something? I have found that reviewers are not always reliable when it comes to telling you how to fix passages of concern. Sometimes they have great advice, but other times they will make suggestions that are not a good match for the purposes and scope of your paper. Let the reviewers help you identify the troublesome spots, but it is ultimately up to you to decide how to address the problems to give your reader the best experience possible. If you are uncertain what to do, consult with a friendly colleague.
Own your weaknesses:
I have a tendency to try to anticipate every possible objection to my argument. I also tend to incorporate replies to these imagined objections into the body of my paper, to try to convince the reader (and myself) that I haven’t overlooked anything. It can really get out of hand, and the result is a bloated, tedious paper. Because I know this about myself, I take recommendations to condense my paper very seriously. Frequently, when a reviewer raises an issue about a particular passage, I can get around the problem by just removing the passage altogether.
What are your weaknesses as a writer?
Make a table:
In addition to making changes in your document, keep a record of how you have addressed each of your reviewers’ concerns. I find that a simple table in a Word document works great for this sort of record. Putting your responses in a table sends a message to your reviewers and your editor that you have taken the comments seriously. A table can also help you organize your revision process.
“I find that rephrasing my reviewers’ comments as a laundry list of distinct items helps me put the comments into perspective so that I take them seriously without blowing them out of proportion.”
My tables have the headings “Reviewer #,” “Concern,” and “Response.” I find that rephrasing my reviewers’ comments as a laundry list of distinct items helps me put the comments into perspective so that I take them seriously without blowing them out of proportion. Having a record of substantive revisions also gives me confidence for items on which I need to stand my ground. Which brings me to my final point…
You’re the boss of your paper:
It is up to you to decide which suggestions will make your paper stronger and which will distract you from your purpose. It is appropriate to respond to a reviewer comment by politely declining to make the suggested change, as long as you give reasons for doing so. In some cases, reviewers just don’t get what you are trying to accomplish (which may mean that you need to define your purpose and scope more clearly in the introduction). Avoid trying to change your project radically to satisfy your reviewers – it is no fun to try to force outsiders’ ideas to fit into your paper, and you will probably end up confusing your readers.
It is also important to acknowledge that the editor and reviewers are “the boss” of their journal. Your purposes for conducting your research may not match with their purposes for publishing research. You may ultimately need to find a different journal – and that’s okay. There are plenty of outlets to choose from. It is also encouraging to note that attitudes about what counts as “real library research” are changing to embrace a range of methods and subject matters (for examples of this shift, see this thoughtful editorial by James Elmborg and Scott Walter and Anne-Marie Deitering’s introduction in Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship).
So take your reviewers’ feedback seriously, but take your own curiosity, insight, and hard work seriously too. Reviewers perform a very important function, but once you strip away the mystery that the double-blind arrangement introduces, reviewers are just colleagues, in all likelihood sitting in an office very much like yours. Learn from them, but don’t be afraid to negotiate with them.
Keep the conversation going…
- Seriously, what are your weaknesses as a writer?
- Scholars need a support system. Who are the best people you know to talk with about research and writing? What makes them so great?
- Alternatively, what kind of feedback do you wish you could have but cannot currently get? What are you going to do about it?
Special thanks to Charissa Powell, Chelsea Heinbach, and the LibParlor Team for their helpful suggestions for this post.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own