How To Deal With Reviewers’ Comments

editing textYour first set of reviewers’ comments lands in your inbox. Your heart begins to race. Will your work be accepted or rejected? Will they love it or hate it? Can you bear to open the email?

These may be reviews for a journal article, book proposal, or book typescript. In each case the process is the same. First you need to read the comments and give yourself time to react. Whether it’s the exultation of an acceptance, the despair of a rejection, or the mixed feelings that come with requests for revisions, you need time to process your emotional response before you do anything else. Whoop, cry, eat chocolate, do whatever you need to do.

Because of negativity bias, negative comments – even when constructively phrased – have more impact on most people than positive comments. We need to work to counteract this bias. So, unless you’ve received very favourable comments and you want to revel in their glory, I recommend waiting at least 24 hours before you read the comments again. This can help you to take a more balanced view, which is useful because if it’s a rejection or revisions, you’ll need to see how your work can benefit from the reviewers’ input before you send it off again. This can be quite a challenge, especially if the reviewers have different views of your work and how it can be improved. Your journal or commissioning editor may offer some guidance and if so you should take that into account. But sometimes they leave it all to you.

My solution to this is to treat the reviewers’ comments as data and go into analysis mode. I create a table with one column for the comments and another for each reviewer. Then I enter each substantive comment into the first column and put a mark in the other columns for each reviewer who has made a similar point. This helps me to pick up the instances where reviewers are effectively saying the same thing, though perhaps in very different ways. It also helps me to see at a glance which comments have been made by all or some reviewers, and which only by one of the reviewers.

I have said before on this blog that reviewers’ comments come in three categories: the no-brainer (act on this), the no-thanks (don’t act on this), and the oh-wait (probably act on this, though not necessarily in the way the reviewer suggests). So my next job is to sort comments into these categories.

If a comment has been made by more than one reviewer I will take it more seriously. That doesn’t mean I’ll definitely implement it, but I am more likely to do so. If a comment has been made by all reviewers I would need a very, very good reason not to implement it. If a comment has only been made by one reviewer, that in itself might be one reason I could decide not to implement it, though I would also expect to give at least one other reason.

Once I have sorted the comments into their categories, I will list them by category in the first column of another table with two further columns: a brief note of what I plan to do in response to each of the no-brainers and the oh-waits, and a brief note of what I plan to write in the cover letter against each comment from all three categories. This is useful because I can dip into it when I have a spare half-hour or so, and find a job or two to do to get me closer to the finish line.

It is important to be polite in your response to reviewers’ comments, even if you think they’re the biggest load of old rubbish you’ve seen since your last visit to the municipal tip. Some reviewers’ suggestions seem to be based more on what they would have written than on what you actually have written and this can be quite annoying at times. When you come across a suggestion you really don’t want to implement, there are some tactful ways to say so, such as:

“This is an excellent suggestion though unfortunately beyond the scope of this particular project.”

“I can see how this suggestion would improve my work but sadly I am unable to incorporate it within the allocated word count.”

“This is a really interesting idea. I have considered it carefully and concluded that it doesn’t quite fit with the thrust of my current article/book, but it will influence my thinking for future projects.”

Remember you are the author and, as such, you have authority. While authors do need reviewers’ input (at least, when it’s constructive), and your work should benefit from intelligent use of their feedback, you don’t have to do everything a reviewer says. Also, a rejection is only a rejection from this journal or publisher. It doesn’t mean your work is worthless; sometimes it’s only because they already have plans to publish something that is similar in some way. This post should help you make the best use you can of reviewers’ comments. That will produce the greatest benefit to your work and career, and is also a way to respect and honour the time and care (most) people put into writing reviews.

Thoughts On Writing Book Chapters

Sage handbook of QREI have written two chapters for edited collections, both on qualitative research ethics. The first was for a book called Qualitative Ethics in Practice, edited by Martin Tolich and published in 2016 by the late lamented Left Coast Press. I said ‘yes’ to that one straight away because it was the first time I’d been asked. Writing the chapter was an interesting and enjoyable exercise but economically pointless. I got a free copy of the book, but I could have bought the paperback for £24.99 from Amazon or, no doubt, for less elsewhere. (I recommend using the book price comparison site Bookbutler, though it doesn’t index all sellers; I don’t see Wordery on that site, and Wordery often have good discounts as well as free shipping worldwide. eBay is also worth checking for discounted new copies; as an author myself I am not advocating buying secondhand books). Given that the chapter took me at least a week to write and edit, an affordable paperback is poor recompense. Also, book chapters don’t carry the academic kudos of journal articles, so they don’t do much for my reputation with universities.

When I was a doctoral student, I loved a good edited collection for offering a range of viewpoints and arguments within a single book. As a reader, I still do, when it’s well done. That suggests I should contribute to such collections. Yet there is so little recompense.

I thought about this carefully. On the morning of 5 January 2016 I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and made a belated New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t write another book chapter. On the afternoon of 5 January 2016 I got an email from Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich asking me to write another book chapter, for the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics which they were beginning to co-edit. Ron and Martin are colleagues with whom I get on well, and that makes it harder to say ‘no’. I did say that I could not take on a chapter requiring primary research or any kind of extensive review of literature with which I wasn’t already familiar. (Well done, past Helen!) After some discussion we found an angle that worked, as it would cover an area where I already had some knowledge that I needed to develop, and it also suited the editors.

I got my copy of the book this week. It’s almost 600 pages, 35 chapters, and retails at £120 on Amazon. On one hand, that still represents woeful recompense for several days of work. On the other hand, £120 is way beyond my budget for buying any book, even one as extensive as this book. And I’m very glad to have a copy.

So I’m rethinking the whole book chapter thing again. Now I think I am more likely to say ‘yes’ if the book in question will be big and expensive and useful for my work. I also think I’ll keep to my decision not to write chapters that need primary research or extensive new reading. Some new reading is inevitable, and that’s OK, but essentially I’m only going to write chapters that I can actually write straight from my desk.

Another thing I have learned about writing book chapters is to ask the editors for the book proposal, so I can see where my chapter fits, and not duplicate work others may be doing in their chapters. It doesn’t seem to be common practice for editors to give the book proposal to potential contributors (I’m not basing this solely on my own experience, I’ve heard the same from other academic writers) though I expect some do. If you’re asked to write a book chapter and the editor doesn’t give you the book proposal, ask for it before you decide. It can give you a much clearer idea of what you’re contributing to.

As with all academic writing intended for publication, book chapters are likely to be peer reviewed individually, and the typescript of the whole book is also likely to be reviewed. (The proposal will have been reviewed, too, before being accepted by the publisher.) So be prepared for edits, proofs etc to come your way. You may also be asked to review a chapter by another author, as sometimes book editors and commissioning editors get around the difficulty in finding reviewers by having their chapter authors review other chapters. Overall, there will be more work than just the writing.

I’m currently reviewing the typescript of a book which is reminding me how much I like a good edited collection. The book’s theme is strong and consistent, and the variation in the chapters is fascinating, in terms of both their content and how authors are addressing the topic. This offers a particular type of richness that no single or co-authored book can achieve. So I’m content with my decision, now, not to say a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to requests for book chapters. I will say ‘yes’ to writing chapters that will benefit me in the process and the outcome, as well as benefiting editors, publishers, and readers.