Advice for Grad Students: How to Respond to Peer Review

You say: Ack! You are going to submit something you wrote! To a journal! This is happening!

I say: Good for you, friend!

Wow, you did it. You wrote something and you sent it into the ether of peer review and three months to two years went by and, suddenly! (because it feels that way), your peer review is back. Quite like my most recent post on How to Do Peer Review, it is just as important to think about how to respond to peer review. Junior researchers and scholars can especially get bent out of shape–cough, cough, myself included–when overwhelmed by criticism and critique, some of which is inevitably at odds at one another.

This post includes some steps (below) on how to reply to peer review and keep a sane distance in the process, all the while producing a clear, tight, and logical series of responses that your editors can follow. When the editors have it easy, they are much more likely to include your work in the journal! So make it easy for them!

You evidently received word of accept with major or minor revisions to be replying at all. Brava/o. My advice does not vary significantly between either but I will add some thoughts about handling major revisions within these steps. NOTE: If the edits suggested are too strenuous or really make no sense to you, it’s likely you are in the wrong journal. Reach out to a trusted adviser or committee member who knows your work and the field for advice on this.

  1. Begin by skimming the review and skimming an in-text edits/comments offered by the reviewers. MERELY SKIM.
  2. Send a thank you note to the editors for the reviews and let them know you’ll be back to them by the due date or a later date your schedule requires. If the due date is much too soon for the amount of corrections suggested/required, or you have another pressing obligation (surgery, a wedding, giving birth) or due date (another publication, conference paper, a dissertation), it’s okay to ask for more time. Just because the editors appear and suddenly give you three weeks–which is way too brief a time–does not mean you have to meet that time. In fact, having served as the editorial oversight for a journal of three years, every editor is moving up the announced due date by weeks if not months so that you meet the actual due date. Just ask politely and if they need it now, they need it now and you can decide if you want to meet that deadline. (By the way, I have never heard of that last scenario happening.) Note: if at some point you need an extension, ask. It happens, i.e. life happens. But DO NOT get extensions for the sake of fear. Move on.
  3. Go for a walk. Have some water. Stretch. I will keep repeating this key step because if you do not follow it, you will get anxious, confused, and/or angry. Depth perception is for winners.
  4. When the timing is right in the upcoming week, read through all of your comments and make some notes to yourself. Separately, take special notes of any conflicting required or suggested changes.
  5. Go for a walk. Have some water. Stretch.
  6. I prefer to go through and do all of the small edits first: word choice, sentence fragments, missing citations at end, spelling typo, etc. It’s quite soothing to accomplish so much so fast. Use track changes for all in-text edits so that the editors can follow along.
  7. Go for a walk. Have some water. Stretch.
  8. Next, I like to run through all of those medium-level edits. This includes lack of clarity in a paragraph, or needing to read/skim an article required to be cited and added properly.
  9. Go for a walk. Have some water. Stretch.
  10. Last but not least come those tough parts when the reviewers say things the likes of, “This article has two different arguments. I think it’s about x.” Also, now it’s time to take on when reviewer x says everything is absolutely brilliant and reviewer y wants you to change things significantly. It’s necessary to now reckon with the reviewers–by completing small- and medium-level edits first, you know this paper much better than just jumping back into it, and the time since submitting the piece has surely helped you really see what the ONE CORE ARGUMENT of this article is. Just one. Not kidding. Really. JUST ONE, FRIEND. If you are thinking I’m messing with you, let’s just say this is a situation of the pot calling the kettle black because I find this tough work too. Just. One. Argument. When you select just one argument, you will determine which of the reviewers you side with if there is a disagreement. Rather than suffer yourself to invisible authoritarians (drink more water, stretch now), consider them colleagues in a debate over coffee and you have your own position. Onward.
  11. How do you determine this one key argument? In fact, most “major revisions” are exactly connected to this issue. Walk through these questions to suss out next steps: Well, check out the abstract, the intro, and the conclusion–do they match up? Does the literature you selected speak to that? Do the methods and findings of your research allow you to make the arguments you are making? Does the discussion section clearly, concisely, and cogently argue for the same argument you see in the intro, abstract, and conclusion? If so, you are set. If not–and “not so much” is usually the case at this early stage in the first years of writing in this format–you have some work to do.
  12. BUT BEFORE YOU BEGIN RESTRUCTURING EVERYTHING please oh please ask yourself: what is the easiest, simplest, least emotionally intensive, and least timely way to reach the goal I would like to reach? Whatever the answer, those are your next step. Go for it!
  13. You’ve made your edits. You feel the article is done. Here is where many junior scholars just send back the article to the editor and it all goes to hell. However do you expect the editors who read dozens and dozens of pieces per month to know exactly what you did and how you did it? You need to create a new document that lists each edit not clearly explained by in-text edits (word choice, typos, adding cites). I recommend going through each reviewers comments as Point 1, Point 2, etc., and grouping them when need be. Write a quick note under each when you reply. As for handling disagreements between authors, layout the discord at the bottom of the document and explain what you chose to do and why. It’s likely the editors did not even notice the reviewers were at odds. I know! You’re shocked! How could the editors not pour over your work in the way only you can love it?! And the last question answers itself. 🙂
  14. Send the edited version with track changes, another with track changes accepted (for easier reading), and the document outlining your edits. In the body of the email, explain what the three versions are and how you look forward to hearing from them. Feel free to ask about turnaround time.
  15. Rejoice! Take a break. Celebrate. Do not self-judge. Hurrah for you! Then turn to something else as the paper is in someone else’s hands now.

As you can see, it’s actually a lot of work to reply to peer reviewers. The good news is that the reviews tend to get more about the arguments that who you cite or how you write as your experience and skills develop as an academic. Or, at least, I hope that’s a trend on the upswing I am experiencing! Heh.

Finally, make sure the article appears on your CV now as forthcoming (if the minor revisions were met with ease) or under review (if you find yourself torn about how severe the major revisions were). And now drink more water, stretch, and go for a walk before you begin the next paper.