It’s Peer Review Week, global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scholarly quality. We’re excited to share a guest post by Executive Editor Courtney Berger.
On a not-too-infrequent basis I see posts and memes in my social media feed denouncing the dastardly deeds of Reviewer #2—that querulous and impossible-to-please peer reviewer. I usually hover over the post, thinking that I might chime in with a bit of helpful advice. I am a book editor after all. Surely I can say something to help alleviate my friend’s experience of feeling misread, misunderstood, or even personally attacked by an anonymous peer reviewer/colleague. But I always resist weighing in, knowing that at that moment my friend just needs to voice their frustration and receive some affirmation. It can be painful to receive this kind of criticism, especially when facing the pressures of tenure and promotion. However, while momentarily painful, even a negative peer review can be a good thing, and you can use the report to strengthen your book. So, here’s a bit of practical and philosophical advice to help you work through a tough peer review.
1) Go ahead and vent—but be careful about where and how you do so.
As I mentioned, I see plenty of social media posts railing against Reviewer #2. No judgment. It’s good to get your community to support you through tough times. But I would caution against offering too much detail in a (semi)public forum or lingering in this phase for too long. It’s a small world—and although there should be an appropriate amount of distance between you and the reviewer, it’s always possible that they are in or adjacent to your social circles. You never know when the person you’ve declared to be the enemy of your book project will turn out to be the person you most wanted feedback from. (Yes, that happens!) After your initial venting, share the report with a trusted friend or colleague and get their feedback. Perhaps they will have a different take on the reader’s comments. They may identify productive advice that it was tough for you to see at first. If it helps, write a scathing response, voicing all of your frustration with the reader’s misapprehensions and misreadings. Get it all out. Then file it away.
2) Focus on problems, not solutions.
My colleague Ken Wissoker touched on this in his blog post on the merits of peer review, and it’s a strategy that I frequently employ to help authors shift their perspective on a review (even a positive one!). It’s easy to get hung up on the reader’s suggestions for how to improve your book. Maybe they recommend adding a chapter or including analysis of a topic or critic that you think is tangential to your project. Or, perhaps you feel like they didn’t “get” your argument or missed a point that’s already in the manuscript. Your job is to figure why the reader is tripping up. If you said something and they missed it, that may not be the reviewer’s fault. Chances are the point is buried at the end of a chapter or not articulated with enough force. In that case, you need to clarify and highlight your claims so that the reader does get it. It’s not uncommon to have two readers—one more positive, the other more critical—pointing to the same issue. It’s just easier to hear the person who presents their comments more constructively. As the author, it’s your job to make the leap and to figure out what your readers need in order to be convinced. Once you do that, it will be much easier to come up with a revision plan.
3) Clarify your vision.
Use the reader’s comments to sharpen your own vision for the book. I often ask authors early in the process: what do you want your book to accomplish? Are you aiming to shift a scholarly conversation, revise an accepted history, offer a new theoretical tool? Do all of the parts of the book support that mission? Clarity on this point will help you to decide which advice to take on board and which to leave by the wayside. The goal of the review process is to help you write the book you want to write, but even better. Let me repeat that, since it’s easy to forget as you’re wading through frustration, self-doubt, or any of the other feelings that this process provokes. You should use the review process to help you realize your vision for the book and to help you say what you want to say in a way that will reach your readers. For a peer-reviewed book, you need to do that in a way that is convincing to other experts in your field; but the book is yours. (Note: I am setting aside exigencies such as tenure review, departmental pressures, and disciplinary policing, which can make this more complicated. But I always urge people to come back to their own ambitions for the project. The audiences and conversations you initiate or enter into with the book are the ones you’ll likely be engaging with for a while, and so they should be ones you care about.)
4) Talk to your editor.
Sometimes a negative review might mean that a press decides to turn down your project, and you may not have an opportunity to get substantial feedback from the editor. But other times, if the reports indicate that the project has great promise, an editor might be eager to work with you to see the book to publication. So process the report, get through the venting phase, and then set up a time to talk to your editor or send them an email with your preliminary thoughts and questions. As the editor, I have a different perspective. First, I know who the readers are, and while I keep their identities anonymous, I can also help an author think critically about the book’s audience and why a particular reviewer might be frustrated with the manuscript in its current state. For example, maybe you thought the book was for a history of science readership. Reviewer #2’s comments might help you to realize that this audience won’t be as receptive to your work. Is this who you are really writing for? If so, you may need to make some adjustments. If not, you may need to reframe the book for the readership you want. Also, I appreciate authors who can take a tough criticism and respond productively. I take it as a good sign when an author is willing to tackle Reviewer #2’s comments and use the feedback to make their book even better.
5) Remember that the review process is part of a larger scholarly conversation.
For many the review process simply feels like a set of hoops to jump through. And it can be that. But it’s also a chance to learn from your peers—just as you would when presenting a paper at a conference—and to respond. While there is the occasional mean-spirited reviewer, most readers are trying to be helpful. Try to receive the comments in the same spirit. Be grateful that someone took the time to read and think with you and take what you can from the conversation.
6) Make your response about you, not the reviewer.
Your editor may ask you to write a response to the reader reports, addressing the readers’ questions and laying out a revision plan. It’s tempting to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate all the ways that Reviewer #2 was wrong. (See #1 above: if you do this, keep it in your drafts folder.) Instead, focus on what you plan to do to improve the book. Now is the time for solutions! For example, if the reader didn’t think the book’s argument was cogent, offer a clear and concise overview of the book’s intervention. If the structure wasn’t working, explain how you will either adapt the structure or make the structure more visible so that the reader will understand it. And hold your ground when you need to. If you really don’t agree with a reviewer’s take on your project, say so and explain how you will make your vision for the project come to life.
6) Know when to cut your losses.
Sometimes a negative review is just a negative review. As difficult as it sounds, you may need to set it aside and move on—to a new press or to a new reviewer, depending on the situation. But hopefully with some of these strategies you can get the most out of the review process, and maybe someday you’ll even be thanking Reviewer #2 in your acknowledgments!
Courtney Berger is Executive Editor at Duke University Press. She joined the Press in 2003, after receiving her Ph.D. in English from Johns Hopkins University. Courtney acquires books across the humanities and social sciences. Her key areas of acquisition include: social and political theory, transnational American studies, Native American and indigenous studies, gender and sexuality studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, critical ethnic studies, environmental humanities, science and technology studies, media studies, literary studies, and geography.