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Handling Peer Review

Making the Most Out of Peer Review Comments

 

Dr. Clark Holdsworth, Senior Manager Communications & Partnerships

November 2022


We’ve written extensively in this space regarding peer review from an author perspective. As a rule this has focused on succeeding in, or passing, the peer review process. This approach is clear just from the title of the category: “Handling Peer Review.”

For the moment though, I’d like to make an exception to the rule, and focus herein on using peer review not for its extrinsic purpose of determining acceptance or rejection of a paper, but rather for its intrinsic purpose of improving the quality of your work.

Prioritizing feedback

When focusing on “passing” peer review, authors tend to focus on comprehensively addressing minor comments and writing fixes. These changes are the easiest way to demonstrate capitulation to reviewers and signal that you are committed to meeting every request.

However, I’d like to encourage authors to take a step back and look at the big picture of their peer reviews. I would ask you to prioritize the most substantial comments as they pertain to your research, which will quite often also be the most difficult comments to satisfy or accommodate. These often include requests for additional experiments and extensive revision/addition to the discussion section. I would encourage you to seriously consider proposed experiments. At the very least this will lead you to consider ways in which the existing or derivative data can be used to aid understanding of the criticisms raised by the reviewers.

Reflect all comments and criticism in the manuscript

Often it seems that the goal for navigating peer review is to address comments with the minimum effort or revision necessary.

Instead, I would suggest that authors attempt to reflect as many comments and criticisms in the manuscript as possible. This does not mean that more is better; it would be a mistake to add maximum text for every criticism. Rather, authors should attempt to add or revise the manuscript, even in minor ways, in response to all comments. This can be as minor as a syntax change, a single word, or minor formatting for emphasis. A single adjustment to an adverb can reflect common reviewer criticisms regarding over- or under-emphasis of certain conclusions and results. These minor changes allow you to leverage the totality of the free criticism that you are receiving through peer review.

Address implicit criticisms

I’ll propose one interesting strategy to making the most out of peer review comments: add your own. The meaning here is that reviewers select certain comments to make, but there is much below the surface that is not listed as an explicit comment.

I suggest taking a moment to collectively consider the review comments, and then writing your own concluding comments that address the overlying themes. For example, numerous comments within the results may indicate an overall issue with reporting style. The best use of these comments is for the authors to return to the results section with a fresh perspective and attempt a redo, rather than pedantically addressing individual criticisms. The same can be true for reviewers criticisms of the wording of conclusions and study novelty. It is worthwhile for the authors to reconsider their overall approach to the conclusions and consider a more effective restructuring, rather than simply wordsmithing the offending sentences.

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