Reviewer right to Reply: dealing with author rebuttals

June 18, 2015 Thomas Gaston

The scenario is all too familiar. You patiently read through the paper, you make exhaustive notes, you write up a comprehensive review with point-by-point instructions explaining exactly how the manuscript is to be changed and then, lo and behold, the author has the audacity to disagree! Makes you wonder why you bother.

Source: MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI/Getty Images

The author, however, sees things differently. They conducted the research, they wrote up their findings, they know their work better than anyone else – of course, they are going to feel protective and likely to disagree if others cannot see the value in what they have done. The author has the right to disagree with criticisms of their paper and the right to disagree with recommended changes. Authors cannot expect to win over their critics but they have the right to try.

Below are some suggestions for reviewers on how to respond when authors disagree with their recommendations.

The Role of Reviewer

Sometimes authors, particularly those researchers early in their careers, feel that reviewers act as an obstacle to publication. Yet this is not the role of reviewers; they are guides, not gatekeepers. Yes, sometimes as a reviewer you will feel it necessary to recommend rejection, but that recommendation should be accompanied by a valid explanation of the problems with the paper. While reviewers are not obliged to mentor authors, it is part of that role to help authors understand the problems with their papers.

When recommending revisions to authors, the reviewer should be focused on providing suggestions that will improve the paper, not stipulating the criteria for acceptance. Remember, it is the role of reviewers to advise; editors make decisions.

Review as Discussion

To a certain extent, the review process is a discussion between authors and reviewers. Reviewers do need to provide a judgement to the editor and, ultimately, the editor will make a decision whether to accept or reject the paper. Within this process, there is room for some degree of back-and-forth between authors and reviewers. And, as with any discussion, it will be most effective if both parties are speaking to each other’s concerns rather than talking past one another.

If a reviewer provides suggestions for improvements, ideally the authors should respond to them. This does not mean that the author will necessarily follow those suggestions, but if they do disagree then it is helpful to explain why. Perhaps the author has found a better way to address the concerns, or can provide clarifications that mean the concerns no longer exist. In any eventuality, the author should at least respond to what the reviewer has said.

In the same way, reviewers should engage with authors’ responses. Perhaps you feel that the author hasn’t met your critique and your suggested changes would still be valuable. Perhaps you feel the author’s “solution” has just introduced new problems. Whatever the case, reviewers should be engaging directly with the responses provided.

Bear in mind that you will never be the only person in the discussion. There will usually be two reviewers on each paper, possibly more, as well as one or more editors. So, it is not just your suggestions that the author will be addressing. Ultimately it is up to the editor to guide the author as to how to revise his/her paper (the editor may not agree with your suggestions!) Similarly, it is up to the editor to guide the reviewers as to any points to focus on when reviewing revised papers.

What if your comments have been ignored?

There may be situations where authors haven’t addressed your review comments. In these situations, try not to assume that you have been intentionally ignored – it may be an innocent oversight. You may like to reiterate your suggestion, highlighting why you feel it is important and try to encourage the author to respond. But, avoid being adversarial or doctrinaire.

There may be situations where the authors have not made any effort to address the comments provided by reviewers, or have only made a half-hearted effort to do so. You may not feel that it is worth your while engaging in further review of the paper until the authors have made a serious effort. If this is the case you should contact the editor directly with your concerns.

The Golden Rule

In the review process- as in life- treat others as you would like to be treated. When someone disagrees with you, whether a close friend or an author you’ve never met, don’t just assume that they are wrong. You would like others to take the time to understand where you’re coming from so try to extend the same courtesy to them.

Related Posts:
Cooperation not confrontation- how to convince referees and respond to reviews

Source: MACIEJ NOSKOWSKI/Getty Images


About the Author

Thomas Gaston

Peer Review Management, Wiley // Thomas Gaston is a Managing Editor in Wiley's Peer Review Management department.

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