How to tell a reviewer they are wrong?
January 10, 2013 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I am an academic, and I need advice on how to word my response to a review for a journal article.

My reviews were generally positive and called for only minor revisions (yay!). However, one of the two reviewers made two comments about what are basically style issues. In the first case the reviewer said I formatted something incorrectly, according to the style manual. However, I have looked this up in the style manual, and I did it correctly, and the reviewer was incorrect. In the second case the reviewer objected to a wording choice, saying it was not the preferred style. But once again, I checked both the style manual AND previous articles in this journal, and there is support for using the wording I used (the style manual specifically says it is preferred in order to avoid awkward wording and passive voice).

So I am obviously not going to make the first change, since it would actually be technically incorrect, and I don't want to make the second change either, because it would make my paper sound worse, not better, and the reviewer's assertion is not supported by the available evidence.

My question: How can I word my response to the reviewers (which I have to include with my revisions) so that I don't come off as sounding snotty when I explain why I am not making these changes? I am worried that saying "I checked these points in the style manual, and what I did was correct" or something along those lines is potentially going to come off wrong to an anonymous peer reviewer who holds my fate in his/her hands. How do I tell someone they were wrong without making it sound like I'm saying "you were wrong?"
posted by pamplemousse of love to Work & Money (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"Previous articles in this journal, as well as [X style guide], support [my wording choice] as acceptable as well*, and we believe it lends clarity."

* that is, don't call reviewer's comments wrong. Say that yours are also okay.
posted by supercres at 7:09 AM on January 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

One common strategy in cases like this is to basically play dumb, and pretend that you must be missing something, and ask for more help. "I checked Page XX of the style guide, and it seems to be saying I should write it the way I did - is there another section of the guide that I should be applying instead? Thanks!"
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:09 AM on January 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

I should point out that the main editor of the journal probably agrees with you that the anonymous reviewer is being pedantic, and thus it won't matter what you do. Just get across that you noticed the reviewer's comment and chose not to change anything.
posted by supercres at 7:12 AM on January 10, 2013 [13 favorites]

Ack, one more last thought; sorry. In my field, papers accepted pending minor revisions don't even go back out to reviewers; the journal editor will read your letter, look at the changes you've made, and probably accept it if you've done everything else the reviewers have asked for. To Tomorrowful's point-- there's usually not a whole lot of back-and-forth between authors and reviewers. (A marginal amount between authors and journal editors.)

posted by supercres at 7:15 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Reviewers aren't gods - they are simply peers giving their opinions of your article. Editors know this. Just matter-of-factly state why you believe your wording is acceptable and leave it at that (supercres gives one good example of how to word this). If you want, you can say something like, "We thank Reviewer #2 for their stylistic suggestions. However, after consulting the style manual (p. X) and previous issues of this journal, we feel that our original choice of wording is preferable."
posted by googly at 7:17 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ah, yeah - sorry, should have noted I'm used to a corporate environment where documents are extensively massaged before going out, not the specifics of academic papers.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:23 AM on January 10, 2013

I would recommend you be passive, since you gain nothing by trying to make some sort of stand - don't get into an argument over something trivial, especially as a reviewer coudl easily delay your publication by 6 months. Say something bland like. 'All text is now compliant with the recommended style for the journal.' You can repeat this if you need to break down your corrections in the resubmitted article. You might mention this a bit more specifically in a comment to the editor.
posted by biffa at 7:44 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Honestly, this does not seem like a hill worth dying on. I would just do what the reviewers told me to and let the copy/production editors tell me to change it back after it's accepted, if (a) they notice and (b) they care.

Accepted is accepted. There is no category for "accepted but has infelicitous wording in one passage" that counts less. And, while I guess these things differ across fields, in my own fields it is likely that the main editors would request post-acceptance changes that will do far more violence than changing one passage (ie, "Reduce the length by a third") anyway.

How do you tell someone they were wrong without making it sound like I'm saying "you were wrong?" Really, you can't, unless your reviewers are dumb as a box of hammers. If they're not -- which is how I'd bet -- then they're going to know they're being told "You're wrong" no matter how you wrap up that shit sandwich. There are for sure ways to tell reviewers that they are wrong. Usually they amount to "Respectfully, here's why you're a dipshit," and half the time your real audience is not the reviewer but the editor.

But again, I would save doing so for reviewers that are asking you to make methodological errors or change your conclusions, not for style.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:44 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

On both sides of this coin (as author or reviewer), I've done what others recommend above, (that is, just respectfully disagreeing and declining to change) and then if there's further pushback, I'll just respond with something like "If the editors feel strongly that I should change this wording, I am happy to suggest alternative wording."
posted by gubenuj at 7:47 AM on January 10, 2013

I have almost this precise problem right now. I'm planning on saying something like "Our convention matches [authoritative reference] and [authoritative reference], so we're going to stick with it." Except possibly with something more formal than "stick with it". I actually can't tell if there's another convention out there the reviewer's using or if they made a mistake.
posted by hoyland at 7:48 AM on January 10, 2013

I'm not an academic but just from a general perspective I agree with the idea of playing dumb / acting puzzled because it's non-threatening to the reviewers and won't put them on the defensive. I would combine it with some humbleness too, such as "Thank you for....", and then "I'm a little puzzled because...." or "Perhaps you can help me understand something....". Really it doesn't seem all that different to me from business situations I've been in where that's the approach I take.
posted by Dansaman at 8:01 AM on January 10, 2013

I would not try to fight this fight. It just isn't worth it; save your reviewer-arguing energy for things that are of scientific importance (if you are in the sciences). At this stage you want to minimize the speedbumps, and so you should aim to convey to the editor that you are doing what the reviewers said; if the paper is going to be seen by them again (unclear from the description) you want them to be able to respond to the editor with minimal comments.

For the first one, if I felt really strongly I would change it to what the reviewer requested and add a note to the editor to the effect of "My understanding from source X was that the convention is Y; the reviewer requested this change and so I've done it, but I wanted to double check with you what the real standard is in case one of us has misunderstood." For the second one, if you really really can't bring yourself to use the suggested wording, I would rephrase it in a third way that avoids both problems. (And consider that you may not be right that the phrasing you had was perfect.) Then in the response letter say something like "reviewer 2 pointed out that the phrasing here was problematic; we have attempted to improve this by doing Z". Most of the time (IME) when a reviewer suggests an alternate phrasing this is just a suggestion, but they only do it when they perceive that the existing phrasing has a problem.
posted by advil at 8:06 AM on January 10, 2013

an anonymous peer reviewer who holds my fate in his/her hands.

It may look that way, but this is not, in fact, the case. The person who makes the final decision in the case of conflicts is the editor.

I would not recommend playing dumb, as that could easily be read for exactly what it is. It would irritate needlessly and would indicate to me, as a reviewer, a lack of professional courtesy, I would instead, directly, respectfully disagree and point out why, noting the appropriate part of the style guide, for example. Be honest, polite and to the point. At that point the decision is with the editor.

If the editor comes back and suggest that you do need to change, then make the changes as suggested. Likely, however, they will not. Your paper is essentially accepted and for minor comments, such as these, particularly where the reviews may be wrong (as they often are), the editors will probably let it go.
posted by bonehead at 8:33 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Disagreeing with a reviewer is ok. Just do it politely. There's a standard format for this: always start by thanking the reviewer. Seriously, someone cared enough about your paper to give you writing suggestions? That's a good thing. So you reply:

"We appreciate the referee's careful reading of the manuscript and suggestions for improved wording. After considering the suggestions and consulting the Journal of Studies Style Guide we believe that our original wording is the best fit. Therefore we have retained our original text. "

I strongly disagree with the suggestions to evade the issue by saying the style is correct without directly stating whether or not you made the change. That looks slimy; it's better to be polite but direct about exactly what you did or did not change.
posted by medusa at 9:14 AM on January 10, 2013 [14 favorites]

medusa's wording above is just about perfect, IMO.
posted by bonehead at 9:33 AM on January 10, 2013

I still can't see having this fight about style guides and wording. Is taking the risk of pissing off a semi-irrational Captain Crazypants reviewer who's already had a rotten day before they turn to your revision worth a style change and the wording of one passage?

I'd follow Advil here. This is almost accepted, so your primary goal here should be not to do anything to fuck that up. Disagreeing with the reviewers can potentially fuck up the deal. Including wording you don't like, or even wording that violates the style guide, won't. Odds are that either the reviewers will back down or that the editor doesn't care either way and will let it go, but are you really so invested in the specific wording that you would prefer an unpublished manuscript with your preferred wording and style over a published article with wording and style you don't like?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:51 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We typically respond with soemthing like, Thanks for your comment regarding xyz. We double-checked and will be using the recommended style, as written below:

(give example of the exact same way you did it the first time)

And for part two, just say, (again) Thanks for your comment regarding abc. We used this wording to avoid passive voice problems as recommended in (cite reference).

And supercres is right: minor revisions rarely go back out to reviewers - certainly not for wording or style - and the editor will likely be aware that some of this particular reviewers comments are off base.
posted by lulu68 at 10:15 AM on January 10, 2013

Does the journal editor explicitly require that you respond to every single requested change? Common practice varies a lot here. Assuming you have some latitude not to write a justification for every single little change, it may work better if you just don't make the changes you don't like, and don't mention it. If you choose to write a long detailed reply about little matters of style, it may make it seem like you're picking a fight unnecessarily.

Either (A) resubmit the next version without these changes and see if anyone makes a thing out of it, or (B) if you feel you have to say something, say something vague and brief: "I've left a few of your small requested style changes as-is after checking with the style manual." Don't draw more attention to this in your response than the editor and reviewer were already giving it; treat it as a small and trivial thing and they probably will too.
posted by RogerB at 10:34 AM on January 10, 2013

My spouse is the editor of an academic journal in the Humanities, and for that journal he does this sort of nit-picky editing, not the reviewers. So, I'd suggest perhaps an informal communication directly with the editor, if possible, to find out how he/she recommends you proceed. Lots of good suggestions here for how to put something diplomatic in your formal response, but let the editor's response to your quick email or call guide you.
posted by msbubbaclees at 10:46 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am really confused by everyone who is calling this a "fight." Pretty much every paper I've ever been involved with has had at least one comment on it that was wrong or irrelevant, and in our response we wrote why we wouldn't be making any changes with regards to that particular comment in a well-supported and polite way and it was totally fine. I can say that at least in bio- and cheminformatics this is a totally mundane occurrence and Medusa's comment outlines a good way of handling it.
posted by invitapriore at 1:19 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been on both sides of this (in the physical sciences; YMMV) and when it comes right down to it, the reviewer is doing their job as a service to the community. Unless they have a specific personal vendetta against you, or they are extremely thin skinned, they are unlikely to care much about style issues. I'd just say something like "we prefer our original formulation" and leave it at that, no justification needed.

Ultimately, journal style issues are up to the Editor / proofreaders. The reviewer's primary concern is (should be!) scientific content.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2013

Although you may have to write a reply to the reviewers, they don't necessarily see it, especially if only minor changes were request. In any event, you probably have to write a separate cover letter to the editor saying how the paper should be published now that you addressed the reviewers concern, since only the editor will see that, you can safely point out that you were right.
posted by 445supermag at 4:49 PM on January 10, 2013

« Older Resume question- is this a big deal?   |   Is this year's flu vaccine effective? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.