How should you handle a useless review? I don’t mean one that’s actively idiotic, but a review that’s superficial, misunderstands the manuscript, is positive but lukewarm, or otherwise just doesn’t seem to point to any avenues for improvement. Perhaps it’s this gem:
This study seems competently executed, and most of the writing is pretty good. A few analyses could benefit from more modern approaches. However, in the end I’m unconvinced of its importance.*
Let’s start with how not to handle a useless review. Don’t write a snappy reply explaining how useless it is. Don’t think of it as a reason to appeal your manuscript’s rejection, if that’s how things come out. And if you get to resubmit, don’t simply ignore it in your Response to Reviews (karma will nearly guarantee the same reviewer will see it again, and you won’t like the results).
But wait – if a review is useless, but you can’t ignore it, what can you do? Well, this takes a bit of cleverness. I suggest making some change to the manuscript – perhaps one you wanted to make anyway, or perhaps one inspired by a different review – and in your Response letter, linking it to the useless review. For example, the useless review above told you that “most of the writing is pretty good” – which, without concrete pointers, is no help at all. But you could respond with “Reviewer X indirectly suggested that there were some rough spots in our writing. We’ve gone over the whole manuscript and given it a thorough polishing, and we think that has helped”. See what I did there? Of course you polished the writing; you always do. But now the editor and the reviewer** see you as the kind of author who understands the review process not as a bar to be cleared with as little effort as possible, but as a way that authors, reviewers, and editors work together to make papers as good as they can be. With authors working the hardest, as they should. As a reviewer and as an editor, I love that kind of author. An author who’s obviously worked hard at the revision will find me quite receptive – even if they haven’t made exactly the revision I had in mind.
This presumes, of course, that the review we’re talking about really is useless – completely free of any information about how you could improve your manuscript. But it probably isn’t.
I hear complaints about reviews being “useless” quite often, from friends and colleagues both in real life and on social media. This is weird, because in my experience, such reviews are really quite rare. What’s not quite so rare? An author whose attitude to reviews leads them to minimize their value; to prefer the easy conclusion that the reviewer is wrong or misguided to the more difficult one that they are; to look only superficially for the story a review is telling.
And now I might as well admit (because you’re figuring it out anyway) that I’ve lured you here under false pretences. Handling a useless review isn’t an important skill, because useless reviews are rare. Recognizing a useful review is the skill we all need. If you think more than about 2-5% of your reviews are “useless”, then I bet you’re misunderstanding those reviews***. And in doing so, you’re missing a major opportunity to improve your writing and increase your papers’ impact.
So how do you recognize a useful review? Well, mostly it’s a matter of deciding to. It helps a lot to recognize that your reviewer is just like the readers you’re hoping to reach. So every review, even a superficial one, is a chance to peek inside the minds of those readers. Did the reviewer “miss the point”? Well, so will some readers; so take a careful look at your manuscript, and ask why the reviewer missed the point. Did the reviewer fail to appreciate how important your question is? Well, so will some readers. Did the reviewer misunderstand your statistical approach? Well, so will some readers. And while suggesting that the reviewer should have read more carefully might make you feel better, it doesn’t otherwise help. Perhaps the reader was tired, frantically busy, or even hung over when they read your manuscript. Guess what? So will be some readers, and you want to reach them too.
So when you get your next “useless” review, make your default belief that you just haven’t figured out its usefulness yet. Before you declare a comment misguided, ask yourself honestly and rigorously if you’re really sure it is (or if instead it’s just oddly phrased or a bit vague). And in the end, if you’re forced into the conclusion that a comment really is misguided? Then ask yourself how it is that your manuscript didn’t prevent that from happening.
Sure, a very few reviews really are useless. But most need an author’s help to be so.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) March 7, 2017
*^Not a real review. But pretty close.
**^For most journals, if your revision is sent out for further review, it’s likely to go back to the same reviewers. Usually, the reviewer will therefore see not only your revised manuscript but also your letter to the editor responding to the reviews. Once, I embarrassed myself by not knowing this.
***^2-5% is my off-the-cuff estimate of the frequency of useless reviews. It might be too high. It’s based on my experience as an author and as an editor, with a sample size of somewhere between 500 and 1000 reviews. Of course, this does not mean that the other 95-98% of reviews are equal in their usefulness. Some reviews are fantastic; some are less fantastic; and sometimes, I’ll admit, some real work is needed to extract the usefulness.