Peer review has the potential to bring us to heights of unparallelled ecstasy or plunge us into deep despairing gloom, to give us unabashed self-confidence in our intellectual brilliance or leave us in profound self-doubt that we will ever (or ever again as the case may be) produce anything worthy of publication—and sometimes these reactions are near simultaneous. I am exaggerating (a bit) to make my point that responding to peer review can be tricky!
While peer reviews for conference papers and panels usually provide only minimal, if any, process for response, scholarly manuscripts, whether for articles or books, involve more substantial opportunities. General editors at a scholarly journal or an academic press first assess submissions internally. If they decide to move forward for external review, they look for external peer reviewers with a demonstrated expertise in the general subject area of the submission; the expertise can range from a substantial body of publications to single, timely publications that specifically address the manuscript’s subject matter. Thus, peer reviewers come from different stages of professional achievement.
Scholarly journals have a double-blind process for external peer review whereby both authors and peer reviewers remain anonymous. For book manuscripts submitted to academic presses, the peer reviewers remain anonymous to the author, but the author’s identity is known to the reviewers.
The journal or press sets the criteria for assessment based on such factors as originality, contribution to the field, and presentation, among others. The peer reviewers are usually asked to recommend one of three or four possibilities for publication: accept as is with minor revisions; accept on the condition that certain revisions are implemented; reject but invite resubmission of revised manuscript (carries no guarantee of acceptance); or reject outright.
Peer-reviewed journals and presses usually send out submissions to a minimum of two external peer reviewers, sometimes more. This is where the tricky part starts. If several reviewers identify a similar weakness, the revision path is clear—the problem needs to be addressed and suggestions implemented. But things are not always so straightforward. Sometimes, the peer reviews differ substantially. One reviewer might recommend publication without reservation, specifically praising the parts that another reviewer insists must be cut before the work reaches publication standards.
Intellectual work involves deep, personal investment and commitment—of our time, effort, and psyche. These factors influence our initial reactions—both positive and negative. It is important to establish perspective by stepping back briefly (especially from the self-pitying pleasures of the misunderstood) to consider, thoughtfully and carefully, what can be gained from the reviewers’ criticism. Often what seems crystal clear and persuasive to us who are close to the subject may be less so for someone who is coming to our thinking anew. Consider how to address the critiques—both large and small. Editing minor points gives us a sense of moving forward which helps in tackling the larger concerns. Question what can be done to make the analysis more persuasive. Consider the ways in which the reviewers’ concerns and suggestions might strengthen the interpretation. Try not to dismiss even the most brusque critiques but rather work with them. If the reviewer seems to have misunderstood the argument, or parts thereof, consider how the manuscript can be revised to ensure more strongly that the reviewer “gets it.”
After a careful consideration, however, don’t hesitate to disagree with the assessment on specific points that are unconvincing or even perhaps relate only tangentially to the work’s central focus. Reviewers, too, are sometimes too fully immersed in their own interests (one of the pitfalls of expertise) and may fail to appreciate fully what is different, new, and exciting.
The invitation to revise and resubmit requires a written response. For articles, this can be a fairly brief (and often times even optional) summary stating what revisions have been implemented in response to the reviewers’ comments and submitted along with the revised work.
For book-length manuscripts, the response is submitted to the Press’s editor and passed on to the reviewer in advance of the resubmission and indicates what revisions are going to be undertaken. A positive tone is important. Being asked to peer review carries distinction, but it is time-consuming, and compensation is limited to modest honorariums or complimentary books. An expression of appreciation for the reviewers’ insights provides a welcome, professional note. The written response should show that the author is taking the critique seriously by providing some specific details concerning the ways in which the reviewers’ responses are being addressed.
It is best to focus on what is being done, what changes in response to the critiques are being implemented, and keep acknowledgements of disagreements with the critiques to a minimum. Don’t hesitate to place one reviewer’s negative commentary in the context of another reviewer’s positive one: for example, “While Reader A1 feels that the treatment of Montgomery’s illnesses is limited, Reader A2 comments on the depth and care that the work brings to an understanding of Montgomery’s health issues.”
Finally, keep in mind that peer review, however frustrating it may be at times, brings distinction to academic work and ultimately helps to fulfill its potential. The recognition and recommendation of peers are a source of true gratification, especially when accompanied by the knowledge that with the reviewers’ help, we have fully earned it.
Submitted by Rita Bode, Trent University
Next (May 24, 31): “Proposing and Co-Editing a Journal Collection,” by Lesley Clement
Banner image of PEI waves. Anne Victoria Photography, 2018