I love it when reviewers make conflicting suggestions

Image: One way?  © Andrea Schafthuizen licensed CC 0 via publicdomainpictures.net

Last week I got the first two peer reviews of my new book (of the complete manuscript, that is*).  I read them with equal doses of eagerness and trepidation (as one does), and before long something very, very familiar happened: I caught Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2 offering exactly opposite and completely conflicting suggestions.  It was a structural issue: according to Reviewer 1, the book has too many short chapters and I should combine them into fewer, longer ones, while according to Reviewer 2, shorter chapters are a plus because they make the material easier to absorb.  So what do I do?

It’s not the first time I’ve ridden this particular bicycle.  Reviewer 1 says “make the Discussion shorter”; Reviewer 2 says “Make the Discussion more comprehensive and cite these 12 additional papers”.  Reviewer 1 says “drop the STRUCTURE analysis and provide only the AMOVA”; Reviewer 2 says “drop the AMOVA and provide only the STRUCTURE analysis”.  Reviewer 1 says – well, never mind, you can supply your own example, because I bet it’s happened to you too.  If it hasn’t yet, it will.

The funny thing is that early in my career, conflicting reviewers made me really frustrated.  How was I supposed to fix the problem and get my paper over the bar for acceptance if the two reviewers couldn’t agree on what fix would be acceptable, or even what the problem was that needed fixing?  How could it be fair that no matter what I did, I’d be failing to heed one of the reviewers?

I understand now that my frustration was rooted in inexperience.  I hadn’t figured out three important things about peer review and revision:

  1. Peer review has two functions: a gatekeeping function and a manuscript improvement function. I knew about the gatekeeping function, of course, and I wanted the review to be a list of things I should do in order for my manuscript to be accepted. Peer review does gatekeep, of course, but not nearly as much as people often think.  Thinking of a peer review as set of suggestions for improving your manuscript is much more productive than thinking of it as a set of hoops you must jump through.
  1. There’s no single correct way to write anything. Sometimes two people will disagree about a point of writing – or of science – and it doesn’t necessarily mean that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. Sure, that’s untidy; but it’s also part of what makes writing, and science, interesting.  In a way, writing is one trolley problem after another.
  1. Having conflicting reviews actually puts the author not in a position of powerlessness (as I thought) but in a position of power. When Reviewer 1 says “do X not Y” and reviewer 2 says “do Y not X”, what this means is that you can choose and justify either X or Y; or even, if you prefer, Z that goes another way altogether. Sure, it takes a little care in the Response to Reviews, because you should justify your agreement with Reviewer 1 and hence your disagreement with Reviewer 2; but it can pretty much always be done and (if I may put my Associate Editor’s hat on for a moment) if it’s done decently it’s pretty difficult to overrule.  In a nutshell: conflicting reviewers offer a menu of at least two possibilities and the freedom to choose the one you like the best**.

So, if you thought you smelled sarcasm in the title of this post: not this time.  Conflicting reviews?  Bring them on!

© Stephen Heard  March 12, 2019

*^”Review happens a bit differently for books, compared to the journal system you’re probably more used to.  First, I wrote a prospectus, including an outline of the book, several sample chapters, and some other stuff.  This went through a round of review, based on which the publisher offered me a contract.  Then I wrote the rest of the book – and now the complete manuscript goes through another round of review, with new reviewers.   In principle, the manuscript could even be rejected at this point (although I’d keep the decidedly unimpressive advance money).  This is my second book; The Scientist’s Guide to Writing was the first, and if you’re curious about the process of writing and publishing a book, I told the whole story of The Scientist’s Guide here.

**^”Be a bit careful, though, in cases where one reviewer dislikes something you’ve done while the other reviewer praises it – as happened with my book.  As the writer, you’re strongly biased.  Who, when offered the chance, wouldn’t agree with someone praising them rather than someone criticizing them?  So be skeptical, and give both opinions serious thought (and consider the neither-of-the-above option Z).  In my own case: I’m waiting for Reviewer 3 and a conversation with my editor before dismissing the suggestion of fewer, longer chapters.


7 thoughts on “I love it when reviewers make conflicting suggestions

  1. Mike Fowler

    I’m with Reviewer 2 (and you; sound the bias alert): short chapters FTW!

    The short chapters have kept me going through TSGTW, as I can get through a meaningful chunk before being disturbed by any of life’s many, inevitable disturbances. Well, that and my own, personal desire for musical revenge.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

        I’m all with Mike here: one of the strength of your writing guide is the short chapters.
        By the way, this way of using one reviewer “against” another is often used by students with an advisor and a co-advisor. I’ve certainly used that many times during my M.Sc. and Ph.D.

        Liked by 1 person

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  3. Joachim L. Dagg (@jo_dagg)

    My outsider opinion may be irrelevant, but I think that peer-review has primarily an economic function. That is, the publishers know that they are publishing material for a very limited potential market of specialists (-> peers). They, therefore, want to make sure that the specialists (peers) will be interested in the published and buy it. Otherwise, the whole endeavor will quickly become a loss. Hence peer review has the primary function to probe whether the potential customers will buy the product. I agree that the improvement function can be significant (for authors), if the reviewers do a good job, but the gate-keeping function may well be a myth, IMHO.


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