The Revise and Resubmit Series, Part 2: Deciphering Reviewer Comments

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I’d be willing to wager that a fair number of you didn’t automatically recognize that hairy word in the abstract of this essay: hortatory. Maybe you paused to look it up. Or maybe you didn’t and instead made a cursory effort to infer its meaning – or my purpose in using it – from the remainder of the words in the title. You might have skipped over it and then forgotten about it entirely because the topic of this column was already clear. It’s possible, too, that you expect me to define the term somewhere in the body of this essay (I won’t). In fact, this entire opening paragraph might have irritated or slightly annoyed you.

All too often, this is what it feels like when junior scholars attempt to decode comments and suggestions from manuscript reviewers. If this reflects your own experience, then you’re not alone. Part 1 in this series focused on coping with criticism; in Part 2, we’ll try to make sense of it.

A few weeks ago, I asked friends and colleagues what befuddled them about reviewer comments. Most scholars lamented that the remarks were too “vague” to make much sense. When I asked what a typical “vague” comment might look like, many responded with specific examples they had received in the past. As the examples piled up, I began to notice certain patterns emerge. The “vague,” seemingly generic comments, when grouped together and placed in juxtaposition with common writing problems, began to make more sense. In what follows, I take some typical reviewer responses and try to put them back into the context of common problems in academic writing.

Think of this list as a translation tool, helping you to move from reviewer lingo back into practical advice on revisions.

1. The Lit Review Comment. “Place this in the literature” or “does not do a good job of synthesizing the literature” or “this article doesn’t situate itself within the field” are all ways in which a reviewer might raise questions about the breadth or depth of your literature review.

Listen, I know those seem like overly vague comments, but they’re really not. They are comments on your lit review (whether it’s in a stand-alone section or integrated into the body of the text). It can be tough to adequately review the literature in your field(s) in a small space. This sort of a comment from a reviewer means: You need to revisit your bibliography and scan for the obvious missing names. Ergo, you need to review your literature review.

Try grouping your bibliography under fields or subjects. If you can’t do that, then you need to think about why not. What texts are you missing? If you don’t really know, then ask people you trust who have been doing this a lot longer than you. Trust me, they’ll not only know exactly who or what you’re missing but they’ll probably be able to assess your problem in under 10 minutes.

2. The Lopsided Article Comment. When a reviewer writes, “author doesn't provide enough empirical evidence to support his point” or “needs more integration of theory with data” or “has too many (or few) examples,” such comments suggest that the piece has an imbalance of evidence/data and argument/analysis.

Again, those comments are not vague. Put them back into the context of your own manuscript. Reread your article and flag evidence and theory with different colors. Then look at the result. You’ll be able to “see” what your reviewer saw in the prose. Most likely, this will be a sea of one color (or the other), or it may appear as segregated blocks. Neither of those is the right “mix.” This is a huge signal that you haven’t, in fact, used enough evidence, or that you went overboard with it, or that you truly haven’t “integrated” data and analysis in your writing.

Caution: Don’t just slap on more evidence or theory in separate sections. The key is an even interweaving of theory with evidence. Think of your text as a pas de deux; the analysis and your data should be working together, not separately, to support your argument. (See the final part of this series for concrete advice on fixing this particular problem.)

3. The Reinvention of the Wheel Comment. Any of the following comments might mean that your article is currently in monologue form instead of part of an ongoing dialogue:

  • “You should cite/incorporate the work of X.”
  • “Please discuss this additional series of primary texts.”
  • “Others have already said this, author should cite.”
  • “Author should show how this is different from X’s use of Y term.”

Such comments indicate that, either by ignorance or purposeful omission, you haven’t adequately engaged other authors working on similar topics or issues. Instead of taking it personally and reacting poorly, learn to see such comments as an opportunity to widen the reach of your argument and engage with different literatures.

This is hard for everyone. Who can know everything, read everything? No one. Which is why I personally find these comments, while aggravating, absolutely necessary to my growth as a scholar.

4. The Contradictory Comments. One reviewer may tell you, “be more ethnographic.” A second reviewer may say, “too much ethnography, add in more theoretical analysis.”

That is a pernicious and frustrating issue with peer review. When I asked scholars for their concerns about review comments, one response on Twitter stated this particular problem succinctly: “When reviewers disagree completely. Then what? Asking editor sometimes unhelpful.”

Yes, asking an editor is not the solution here. It’s called “peer” review. You are expected to adjudicate this problem yourself. You’re not expected to do everything your reviewers suggest. Rather, you’re supposed to take their suggestions into thoughtful consideration and then decide which reviewer you feel has the stronger point and why. In other words, you must carefully review your own work and make the changes that you feel best suit your purpose. (Don’t worry, we’ll discuss how to do this effectively in Part 3.)

5. The Weak Argument Comment. When reviewers write, “argument is unclear” or “essay should perhaps have been focused on X” or “this is really about Y,” that indicates the reader has not understood the author’s main thesis.

This is the most serious type of “vague” comment you can receive as a writer. It is also the type of comment that often initially makes an author’s blood boil. It simply means that a reader hasn’t understood your main point. Either you don’t have one (perhaps you actually have three arguments, not one), or you haven’t stated it as clearly as you think you have.

As Don Chance, a chaired professor of finance at Louisiana State University, powerfully puts it: “Remind yourself that even a horrible, critical review tells one thing about your writing: You lost someone. The points you meant to convey did not come across and permitted this person to misinterpret your paper and take delight in shooting you down from the veil of anonymity.”

If a reader disagrees with you, that’s one thing. But if they can’t make out your argument or you haven’t really supported it? That’s a good sign that you need to go back to the drawing board.

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