How to... survive peer review and revise your paper Part: 5

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How to... survive peer review and revise your paper

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How to revise your paper

Despite the advantages of the peer review process in providing validation, quality control and added value in the form of constructive feedback, the whole process can evoke much anguish amongst authors. There is a fear that it may be impossible to be truly impartial, that the process causes a long delay, and that comments are often too brief to be helpful. Much more serious is the fact that the review process comes too late in the authoring cycle – the research has been done, and it may be too late to change the research design or collect new data.

However, given that you want to revise your paper (there is always the option not to if the required revisions are too great), the following are some points to bear in mind when receiving the comments:

  • Relax! you are in the publishing process. People have invested time to make your paper better. You are now a potential contributor to the journal.
  • Don't take criticism personally. Remember, the peer review process is blind, you don't know who your reviewers are and they don't know who you are.
  • View the comments, and the work required, as feedback, not criticism.
  • Put a bit of distance between yourself and the comments. Put them away for a few days, then come back to them. You will then be in a better frame of mind to appreciate exactly what is being said.
  • Having established what is required, and the time-scale given you by the editor, write to the editor agreeing to carry out the revisions within the time-scale (if necessary, negotiate a longer time-scale). Clarify any ambiguity or contradiction in the reviewers' comments, e.g. if one has said that the article is too long, the other that it is too short.
  • Having agreed a time-scale, stick to it. As with any process of revision, you need to decide in what order you are going to tackle the amendments. You may wish to work through the paper chronologically, by reviewer, or perhaps attempt the more minor revisions before the substantive ones. If you are required to assemble more data, or read new literature, then you need to make sure that you allow time for this in your revision timetable.
  • If major revisions are required, tackle these. Don't fob off the reviewers by trying to hide the fact you haven't done what you were asked to do behind mere stylistic alterations.
  • Save your revised paper as a separate draft (nameoffile_rev1.doc etc.). You may want to refer to previous drafts.
  • Once you have revised the paper, proofread and spell check it again, carefully.
  • Write a covering letter to the editor, stating what you have done (separately for each reviewer), and if you haven't done what the reviewers have asked, provide detailed reasons why not, and amending your paper as appropriate. It will make it easier for your reviewers you can also include their comments as in the examples (should be a simple cut and paste job).
  • Always retain a courteous tone in responding to reviewers; thank them for positive comments, and respond graciously to criticism as in the examples below. Remember, publishing is always about relationships, and courtesy is appreciated!

Example: Health, Information and Libraries Journal paper

Catherine Ebenezer is a health services librarian, who as part of an MSc project carried out a usability evaluation of the website of an NHS trust. Her tutor suggested that she publish an article, and suggested Health, Information and Libraries Journal, published by Blackwell.

The review policy for this journal is as follows:

Two referees will be selected from the database of expertise, and given 14 days to return their comments. Upon receipt of comments the editor will review the paper, and, if the reviews are contradictory, will send to a third reviewer or member of the EAB. Referees are asked to consider the following:

Structure

  • Is the title suitably informative?
  • Is an abstract (informative or structured in the case of a research report) included.
  • Is it clear what question the paper is attempting to answer?
  • Are the objectives of the work clearly stated?
  • Are the methods clearly described?
  • Are the results concisely presented?
  • Does the author refer to relevant papers in the literature?
  • Is there a discussion of the results and are the implications of any findings carefully presented?
  • Is the bibliography complete and up to date?

Content

  • Does the paper provide anything new, either in the way of evidence or interpretation to what is already known in the field?
  • Does it present ideas of interest or practical use to personnel in the library environment?
  • Does the paper discuss an issue of current concern in the field?
  • Are the arguments sound?
  • Is the experimental data capable of supporting the conclusions drawn?
  • Are there gaps or omissions in the coverage, data, logic, presentation?
  • Is the paper well written and the data clearly presented by means of appropriate tables, graphs, or diagrams?
  • If numeric data or mathematical calculations are included, are these correct?

Catherine duly did the revisions, which were fairly minor, and sent the revised paper to the editor, along with an accompanying email saying what points she had not addressed, and why.

The editor and reviewers were still concerned about the number of references, so they suggested that the literature review section was substantially cut, and that it and the accompanying references put on the website (thus cutting the references down from 71 to 47). Reference to this website was made in the text, so that the reader could go there for more information.

"Usability evaluation of an NHS library web site"
Catherine Ebenezer
Health, Information and Libraries Journal Vol. 20 No. 3

Example: Management Decision paper

Vassilis M. Papdakis (Athens University of Economics and Business) wrote a paper entitled "The role of broader context and the communication program in merger and acquisition implementation success"'. As with the previous example, the reviewers gave fairly detailed comments suggesting some modest revisions. The author provided two cover sheets, one for each reviewer, quoting their comments, responding to the comment, and stating what action taken. The reviewers gave fairly detailed comments, a selection of which are shown below in summary form, along with authors' responses.

Reviewers' comments and authors' responses
Reviewer 1 Reviewer 2
Practical applications – are the implications for practitioners clearly drawn out?
COMMENT: Somewhat weak ... The implications are primarily for research purposes. COMMENT: Very limited advice for improving practice.
RESPONSE: Looking back at the paper more objectively, we have to admit your are right. Rewrote implications section adding new implications for managers and elaborating on already presented implications. RESPONSE: See opposite.
Research applications – does the article suggest areas for further research?
COMMENT: Yes, and this is strong. COMMENT: Further research needs to be stated in terms more relevant to that stream.
RESPONSE: N/A RESPONSE: Section re-written as has discussion and conclusion.
Clarity and readability – is attention paid to clarity of expression and readability?
COMMENT: Yes, however identify M&A acronym at the beginning of the manusript. COMMENT: Major problem. Grammatical and typo errors.
RESPONSE: Change made. RESPONSE: Proofread again and errors corrected.
Originality – does it add to the subject area/body of knowledge?
COMMENT: Yes. COMMENT: Only peripheral contribution.
RESPONSE: N/A RESPONSE: Respectfully disagree, giving four reasons.
Action: rewrite 2nd part of intro so that these points are better brought out.
Analytical rigour – does the article demonstrate soundness in the way in which it has been research and/or argued?
COMMENT: Researchers did not establish validity and reliability of their measures. Needs to be a quantitative analysis of the data to determine its validity and reliability. COMMENT: Discuss literature before stating hypothesis; devt. of measure of independent variables not well explained; include some controls in the regression analysis; methodology weak.
RESPONSE: Fair point: have attempted to use well known and tested measures of main variables, to ensure reliablity and validity of variables in the research.
Action: establish validity a) by indicating source of variables b) by discussing how other studies used as ref points; also explain in more detail reliability of all composite measures in the study.
RESPONSE: We believe, there is no such thing as a perfect research design. However, we are confident that we have exercised every caution to present a reliable, and well researched study ... by ... following and ... improving the research designs ... of other researchers.
Action: added several papers to the theoretical section; rewritten several paras; have not included addit. control variables as the M&As studied come from ten different industry sectors.
Internationality – will the article be of interest to an international audience?
COMMENT: Need for discussion of implications beyond Greece. COMMENT: Little discussion of Greece in terms of explaining the research findings.
RESPONSE: Additional info on M&A activity in Greece given plus further discussion on usefulness to international audience, plus prospective EU members. RESPONSE: See opposite.
Please specify any other revision criteria
Additional changes:
  • enriched section discussing further research recommendations
  • added new relevant papers to theoretical framework
  • rewrote introduction and several other parts.

Note that although the second reviewer recommended rejection, the author did in fact revise it.

Example: Management Decision paper

David Foote of Middle Tennessee State University wrote, together with colleagues, a paper originally entitled "Policy commitment: shifting targets of loyalty in organizations". While the reviewers were impressed by the choice of subject, which they described as "interesting, innovative and exciting", its international appeal, and the style in which the article was written, they had concerns as to the rigour of the research. In particular, they indicated that the theoretical background to the paper was weak, and asked questions as to the theoretical foundation for the main variable in the study, policy commitment. One reviewer also queried the methodology, stating that there was a discrepancy in the number of items given for the instrument, the PC scale, which also did not properly relate to the definition of PC.

David and his colleagues re-worked the paper, making extensive revisions which included adding a theoretical context, revising the description of the instrument as well as several other aspects of the reseach methodology. David also responded in detail to reviewers' comments, providing a table which listed all the comments by reviewer, and which detailed his response. We recommend this response as an example of good practice (requires Microsoft Word to view).

David commented that "I felt that the paper was dramatically improved as a result of the review and revision process"; his amended article Employee commitment and organizational policies was published in Management Decision, Vol. 43 No. 2.