How to respond to difficult or negative peer-reviewer feedback

A systematic approach to critiques and queries can help keep emotions at bay.

18 May 2021

Natalie Parletta

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Learning to accept criticism through peer review is a difficult but necessary task for young researchers trying to get papers published in a highly competitive environment. It would be hard enough if feedback on a paper was always fair and reasonable, but that’s not guaranteed.

Researchers have voiced frustrations that reviewer comments can be contradictory and patronising, and even biased or unprofessional in tone. Sometimes the reviewer might not have the depth of knowledge that the author expects, which can lead to vague and at times misinformed feedback.

It’s natural to want to take bruising peer reviewer comments personally, particularly if they’re requesting significant rewrites or additional work. Having to re-run models, conduct additional lab work or analyses, or design and carry out entirely new experiments can be a daunting, time-consuming – and sometimes expensive – prospect.

“I think the most difficult [comments] are when you’re asked to do something all over again,” says Julie Shapiro, an ecologist at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, who lead-authored five peer-reviewed papers last year.

So, what’s the best way to respond to such requests?

Sleep on it

Waiting a day or two to respond to reviewer comments can help to create emotional distance between yourself and your work.

“Sometimes you get this defensive reaction right away, so I try not to change anything the first time,” says Shapiro.

“Taking a couple of days to let it stew is always helpful. Usually with the second reading, the reaction is more moderate, like ‘Okay, they’re right about this or that; I know how to deal with this comment.’”

It’s also important to not let feelings of dread build up. In April, Jennifer Moussa, a master’s microbial genomics student at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, asked the academic community on Twitter for advice on responding to reviewer comments.

Moussa says that after all of the horror stories she’d heard about highly critical reviewer comments, she was initially too anxious to look at the comments on her paper.

“[But] they were actually really good, and they pointed out things that I didn’t pay attention to,” she adds. “It’s a nice feeling to know that someone is actually correcting, not attacking me.”

Don’t tackle tough queries alone

Shapiro suggests starting with the easiest comments and working towards the most difficult ones, and for major changes, consult with the senior authors to come up with the best strategy.

Jack Baker, a civil and environmental engineering research group leader at Stanford University in California, has produced a set of free resources for students on topics such as writing papers and receiving negative feedback. He suggests drawing up a response plan for each comment in consultation with the co-authors before starting to write up revisions.

Shapiro recalls one challenging request she received on a paper related to fungi identification, where the relevant work had been done at her previous institution.

It took almost a year to coordinate with her co-authors to address the comment and resubmit, but she acknowledges that it ultimately improved the paper. “It was a pain to have to do, but I think it was worth it,” she says.

Respond to each comment – even if you disagree

If you choose not to respond to certain queries, you risk dragging out the peer-review process. Sometimes even a subtle change to the paper can show that you’ve considered the reviewer’s suggestions, says Shapiro.

If you don’t agree with their critiques, take the time to justify why – respectfully. This may require additional research to put forward a convincing case.

“If I decide not to do what a reviewer has suggested, I always check in the literature and then write a really robust justification,” says Shapiro.

While the reviewers are often advised to be patient in their comments to the authors, authors should bear this in mind, too.

In a 2017 study in the journal Learned Publishing on early career researcher experiences of being a peer reviewer and reviewee, one respondent observed that some reviewers lack understanding and experience in the niche area of the paper that they have undertaken to review.

“You have to be easy-going about this,” they observe. “You have to accept them as humans who make mistakes.”

With that in mind, it’s important to remember that if something is unclear to the reviewer, there’s a good chance that it will be unclear to other readers.

“If the reviewer is wrong ... it might be because the writing invited the misunderstanding,” Spencer Mermelstein, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, advised on Twitter. “So, correct them, but also correct the paper to avoid that misunderstanding that future readers might share.”

Find a system that works for you – and stick to it

If the editor and reviewers can easily follow your responses through the manuscript, it can help streamline the peer-review process.

One approach is to present the comments and your responses sequentially at the end of the manuscript, providing references to relevant page numbers – and, if possible, line numbers – so that changes can be quickly cross-checked.

It’s also helpful to use highlights to show where changes have been made in the manuscript.

Matthew Lloyd, a chemical biologist at the University of Bath, UK, responded to Moussa on Twitter saying that he uses a different coloured highlight for each reviewer so they can see revisions in response to their own comments, as well as other reviewer suggestions.

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