refereeing a journal article. part 3. writing the feedback

Having read the article carefully, and decided whether it’s accept without change, revise and resubmit or reject, there is now the task of writing the feedback to the author/s.

There are four things to keep in mind when writing feedback:

(1) Write the kind of comments you expect to get

Most journals suggest that feedback to author/s should be positive and offer concrete advice. However this is not always what happens.

I have seen some truly awful feedback destined for authors. Among the worst… This is the kind of article that gives this methodology a bad name… This is a naïve and simplistic view of… The author has clearly never read beyond… I would fail this if it was a first year essay… This is just awful. There is usually an opportunity to say this kind of thing to an Editor if you must, but it is devastating for author/s to get such off-handed, smart-alec comments.

It’s also not helpful to become teacherly. This is a peer writing, it’s not a student essay. Even if this is obviously written by a doctoral researcher, they are expecting to be dealt with as a colleague, not sent to the kiddy table.

Feedback comments should be appreciatively critical, just like the reading of the article. Generosity of spirit and collegiality in tone is the order of the writing feedback day.

(2) Use a structure for the feedback which allows the author to follow what you are saying.

Remember that the author/s now know that they need to do more, so they are reading with a sinking heart. So you need to be specific as well as kind.

I generally aim for three quarters to a page in length, unless it is an accept without change –this is usually just a paragraph or two saying what I think is great about the paper.

I have a bit of a formula I use for reviews. So here’s what I do – it’s not the only way to write feedback of course, but it’s ONE way to approach the task.

• Write two to four sentences summarising what the paper is about. So something like… This paper addresses… and presents evidence that … . The author/s argue that… This gives the author the chance to see whether you have understood what they wanted to say. If you haven’t got it, they can then consider how they might have produced this misreading.

• If you really enjoyed reading the article, say so now before you start with the concerns.

• Write something about the contribution, as in… The article clearly makes a contribution to/has the potential to add to what we know about/will make a significant addition to … This might be linked to a caveat such as… but needs further work in order to bring this to fruition/realise its potential, needs some revision in order to achieve this.

• Then, if there are suggested revisions, say whether they are major or minor and how many there are, as in .. I have two suggestions for major revisions and one more minor point… or I offer some issues that the author/s needs to consider in the methodological section and a recommendation for some restructuring of the findings…

• Then dispassionately state the changes that you think are necessary, based on your reading of the article. Try to focus on the things that are the most fundamental.

You may just outline the problem (s) and suggest that the author/s needs to find a way of resolving it/them. You might offer one or two suggestions. Or you might have something very definite in mind. Any of these is OK, although just outlining the problem can be a bit scary for the author/s when they come to revise. Whatever, you just need to be explicit about which of these you are doing.

If there is reading that the author/s need to do, give them the references, don’t just say there is literature out there that they ought to know about.

If you are suggesting major revisions, then there probably isn’t much point in outlining twenty five specific things for the author/s to do; it’s the big bits that are the most important for the author/s to grasp. Too much detail and they will be completely confused/overwhelmed/dispirited. And if it’s major revisions you will get another look at the paper, at which time you can pick up any small things that still need resolution.

Finally, succintly list any grammatical, proofing and referencing problems.

• Conclude with some encouragement. This might involve repeating the potential contribution and the importance/value of the author/s continuing to work on the piece.

(3) Be clear

Reviews can be written in a kind of code, just like real estate advertisements. While it is important not to be rude/sarcastic/patronising, it is just as important to be clear. If there is a problem that you can see with an aspect of the paper, say what it is and don’t waffle. Don’t say The references need attention , say The references need to be in the appropriate journal style. Don’t say The methodology section needs to be clearer, say The methodology section needs to include information about the site, sample and types of data generated as well as the methods of analysis. Etc.

The clearer the feedback the more chance the author/s has of deciding whether they agree with you and/or doing exactly what’s needed to get the article to publication.

(4) Don’t tell them to read all your work – unless you really ARE the key figure in the field

This can be really hard. After all, you’ve been sent the article to review on the basis of your expertise and you know how your work might help. BUT refereeing is not about upping your citations, it’s about the author/s writing about their work and they don’t have to cite everything in the field in order to do this. Perhaps the tip is to only require a reference to your work if it’s central to the argument being made.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in feedback, journal, peer review, refereeing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to refereeing a journal article. part 3. writing the feedback

  1. Adam says:

    I’m always interested in discussions about feedback, as a fair chunk of what I do is giving researchers lay feedback on their draft research grant applications. Something that really influenced me as regards your third point – being clear – was a paper called ‘Separated by a Common Translation? How the British and the Dutch Communicate’ (Rottier, Ripmeester, and Bush, Pediatric Pulmonology (46:409–411 (2011)). It’s available online at

    http://www.labourmobility.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Pedriatic_Pulmonoly_finalversion.pdf

    and there’s a section on common phrases in the academic review process and how they might be misunderstood.

    It really made me think about the cultural and linguistic issues implicit in giving feedback to colleagues from outside the UK (and not just from the Netherlands). My default setting tends to be understatement and caution – as is probably obvious from this sentence – and I need to be careful that I’m getting my message across.

    • pat thomson says:

      Thanks Adam. One of my fantasy pieces of research is to ask new writers what sense they are making of reviewers comments. My colleague barbara and I suggest that early researchers enlist a publication broker to help with this and other writing issues.

  2. stevec00ke says:

    Useful stuff – thanks. I’ve just done my first peer review and it was hugely daunting. I wish I’d seen this post beforehand.

  3. Pingback: Refereeing a journal article | Research tips

  4. I’ve reviewed several research papers and one thing I wish is that – especially for newer reviewers – there was some feedback from the journal editor. Usually I don’t even find out what the other reviewer(s) recommended or whether the journal editor accepted my recommendations or comments until I see the article in print (even when I’ve recommended major revisions or, in one case, rejection). The most useful process for me was working with a more experienced colleague to co-edit a special edition of a journal, doing initial reviews and collating peer reviews to give feedback to authors.

    • pat thomson says:

      One of the journals I work for on the editorial board, the international journal of research and methods in education, does this. Having had this kind of feedback, I agree, it’s good to know what’s happened. As we move to the online system, we are trying to set this up for education action research journal too.

  5. And also – thank you – for opening up this process that can seem so secretive from the outside!

  6. M-H says:

    These have been great posts; I have learned heaps. When I was a green new PhD student I did a final pre-publication check on refereed conference proceedings – checking how (or whether) the contributors had responded to the peer reviewers. I have worked as an editor for years (outside academia), and I was quite shocked at how nasty some of the reviews had been. Among other things, reviewers criticised contributors for not doing things that weren’t relevant, or for their (appropriate and justified) use of methodologies that the reviewer clearly wasn’t familiar with. It did make me feel much more cynical about the value of reviewing – or at least about the people who had put themselves forward as reviewers. I seems to me that a lot of academics approach reviewing as a form of student marking – incredibly, my partner once got a journal review back marked out of 10!

    • pat thomson says:

      Can I cite this example? I can attribute anonymously or to you by name or as this tag… For new book on writing for journals. Just finessing the penultimate draft now.

  7. M-H says:

    Pat, I’m very happy for you to use this example, and for you to use either my name or this tag. Should I email you with more details?

  8. I had reviewed two articles before finding these posts, and am now revisiting your wise words before starting my third. Whoever has written this, as yet unread third article will never know the debt of thanks they owe you!

  9. Pingback: Refereeing a journal article | Adam Loy

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