Responding to referees

As noted in the postscript to Chapter 1.1, refereeing can be a lottery. Referees' comments — and recommendations — can vary. Consider three more referees' advice and comments to an editor about an article that I had submitted for publication:

• Referee 1: Accept. It would be quite helpful to non-specialists to provide grade reading equivalents to the Flesch scores to give perspective.

• Referee 2: Accept with revision. This paper addresses an interesting and important topic . . . Despite this . . . the results are somewhat of a mixed bag overall. Accordingly I would recommend the following revisions before it is considered for publication. I begin with the more serious concerns and then touch on some relatively minor ones . . .

• Referee 3: Reject. [. . .] This paper conflates (this technical task) with some non-technical terms, some common-sense beliefs about reading and writing that there is no strong evidence for, normative expectations of what texts should be and moralistic stances towards textual patterns, and relies unanalytically on a measure that aggregates factors and itself is not widely respected . . .

These quotations are extracts from the referees' reports. Which referee do you imagine I found most useful when asked by the editor to consider them all when making a resubmission? Answer: Referee 2. Referee 1 was complimentary, but did not require much. The report contained only three sentences and was rather cursory. Referee 2 wrote two pages of useful suggestions and I was able to use most of these to improve the paper. Referee 3 wrote at length but required a completely different approach to the topic so that there was not much I could do to meet these criticisms.

There are similar accounts in the literature of irreconcilable comments from referees (e.g. see Griffiths, 1992). So what do you do, especially if you get a rejection letter? Here is one suggestion:

When you are the recipient of an unexpected rejection letter, don't sit down and fire off a letter to the editor. Talk it over with your friends. Indulge in intemperate verbal expressions to your colleagues. Write a letter to the editor that says exactly what you want to say, then delete it . . .

The first thing is to calm down. It may take a week or two, but eventually you may begin to see that what the referees say might have some sense. Then you can start to revise your manuscript.

It is probably wiser to revise the manuscript than just send it without changes to another journal. Different journals have different requirements, and it is important to try to meet these, as well as to pre-empt the criticisms made by the original referees (Donovan, 2007).

If you are luckier and an editor asks you 'to revise and resubmit' you can take the opportunity to improve your paper. Most editors ask you to indicate when you resubmit your manuscript what you have done to meet the criticisms of the referees. Figure 2.12.1 shows a typical reply for another paper. Here it can be seen that the main focus of Referee 2's comments (that the article was not theoretical enough) has been skirted round, but that most of the less important criticisms have been taken on board. In this case the editor accepted the revised manuscript for publication, indicating that she found the reply to be 'a balanced and constructive response'.

Woods (1999) suggests that authors keep working on their papers once they have been submitted, especially if they come across some new and relevant findings that ought to be included or discussed. This is sensible advice, as this will help authors to respond more authoritatively to any referees' criticisms when they eventually arrive.

Summary of changes made in revising an article Re - referee 1

A summary has been added to meet this reviewer's suggestion. Re - referee 2

General comments

This referee finds the paper descriptive and a-theoretical, and wants a different approach. We have not met this requirement - largely because it would involve completely re-writing the paper from a different viewpoint. We have, however, met this criticism in places by responding to it. Thus we have moved up Panel 1 from the end of the Introduction to the beginning of the paper, and we have explicitly said (pp. 7-8) that we are not particularly interested in a theoretical approach at this stage. Indeed, Panel 1 implicitly lists 20 theories - so there is no consensus anyway.

Specific changes

We have given the proportion of the sample who were Mature students in the abstract, as requested.

We have added a paragraph to explain the rationale for including the analyses of the sub-sample as well as the main one (p. 10).

We have clarified the description of the results on p. 10 (originally) and on p. 12 (originally) as requested.

We have deleted Table 5 and the discussion around it as suggested.

We have explained more clearly the rationale for choosing the two methods of standardisation (now on p. 16).

We have not commented on why the results differ for the different methods of assessment - as we do not feel this is necessary.

We have taken the opportunity in doing the revisions to:

• Add more relevant references where appropriate.

• To re-write the sub-section in the introduction on small-scale studies of sex differences under three sub-headings to match the previous text. (In doing this we found a set of results on essay examinations had not been included in the original submission!)

Figure 2.12.1 The authors' response to an editorial request to consider the comments of two referees in revising a manuscript.

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