Understanding Reviewer Feedback: Guidelines and Explanations

Mirabeth Braude, Michigan State University

Ashley Cerku, Oakland University

Steve Price, Associate Professor of English, Mississipi College

All writers have experienced the excitement of having someone read our work.  Naturally, we also have felt our nerves rattle as we read criticism of the text that we had poured so much thought into. In this article, we offer a definition of constructive feedback and discuss the types of editorial suggestions contributors commonly encounter. By doing so, we seek to help first time contributors better understand the review process and outcomes as well as to respond effectively to editors both within the text and through their submission correspondence.

Defining Constructive Feedback

Feedback is defined as information that specifies one’s performance on a task (Blair, Curtis, Goodwin, Shields, 2013).  While Constructive feedback takes many forms and is often considered subjective, Nelson and Schunn (2009) articulate seven aspects of feedback that have been proven to positively impact writing performance: specificity, identification of a problem, localization, offering a solution, explanations, scope, and affective language.

Components of Constructive Feedback

The chart below briefly explains the concepts that we will discuss in more detail below.

1. Specificity Details about the problems and solutions
2. Identification of a problem Explicitly stated parts that cause confusion or errors in manuscript
3. Localization Pinpointed places where problems occur or solutions can be made
4. Offering a solution Suggestions for how the problems can be resolved
5. Explanations Statements about why the solution should be changed in the draft
6. Scope A limit to the number of higher and lower order concern solutions
7. Affective language Positive and mitigating feedback to encourage and specify changes

Specificity

For feedback to be specific, it must be tell contributors how to proceed (or not) with the manuscript. Specific feedback can be about the manuscript as a whole or it may point to a tangible problem in one section of the text. A reviewer may write that “the manuscript advances current discussions and is recommended to be accepted for publication;” “the manuscript contributes to a discussion, but needs to be resubmitted after revisions;” or, “the manuscript is not recommended to be published in the particular journal” (this will be discussed in further detail later). Contributors should mine reviewer comments for specific feedback because it suggests a revision plan.

Problem Identification and Localization

Identifying a problem means explicitly stating a concern. A concern can cover things like insufficient coverage of the existing literature, unclear methods, or overly broad or narrow claims. If there is a structural flaw that creates confusion for the reader, the reviewer may note, for example, that the thesis goes off topic within the third and fourth paragraphs. When a reviewer explicitly states a problem, he or she will localize the place where it occurs within the manuscript and/or explain how it affects the organization of ideas throughout the paper. When reviewers identify problems effectively, the contributor can confidently understand how the problem impacts the reader’s comprehension.

Solutions and Explanations

Once a problem is identified, reviewers often propose a solution, a statement that offers a way to correct a higher- or lower-order concern. It is also common for a reviewer to pair the solution with an explanation that overviews why the solution must be implemented or how it will improve the submission. For example, an author might be instructed to create a topic sentence for her second paragraph because its main idea is unclear until the fifth sentence. Without clarification, contributors may struggle to make the changes sought.

Scope

The scope of feedback content is the range of how many or how few comments are provided in the feedback. In constructive feedback, you often will see a few common themes that affect whether the reviewer believes the manuscript is fit for publication. Too many comments can be less helpful than a few that concisely identify  patterns that stress the clarity of the contributor’s ideas.

Effective Language

Effective language is praise that stands on its own and mitigating language that comes with solutions. For example, positive language can appear as, “Your argument excels at facilitating discussion on the topic on multilingualism in writing center studies.” Mitigating language might take the form of, “Your argument is very strong, but you should include more current literature to your discussion of this topic.”  Overall, affective language encourages the contributor as he embarks on the revision path  (Nelson & Schunn, 2009).

Understanding and Implementing Feedback

While these seven feedback characteristics are effective, they are not absolute.  Feedback depends on the journal’s goals, the reviewer’s style, and the timeliness of the turnaround.  For example, not all reviewers offer a solution when identifying a problem; sometimes, they simply may ask questions to further inquire about the topic.

Once constructive feedback is received, the revision should be pursued as a conversation between the reviewer’s comments and the evolving manuscript. You will be corresponding directly with the journal editors when you submit your response.  Therefore, when responding to any recommendation, it is important to address these five steps to help foster conversation.

  • Thank the reviewers for their feedback.
  • Reiterate the reviewers main recommendations as well as the title of your submission. This is a courtesy to reviewers and editors because it helps them stay organized.
  • Address tasks or questions the reviewer provides. Make sure that you answer the reviewer’s questions or concerns concisely and completely so that you can successfully move forward in the review process. If you choose to keep or not change particular sections, provide a detailed explanation of why.
  • Give insight on what you changed or how you addressed their feedback. It is important not only to show what you did but also to explain your own review process.
  • End with a cordial phrase or statement that demonstrates your interest or gratitude. Always end on a good note and remember that your response determines the tone of your relationship with the editor.

Keep the five steps for responding to feedback in mind while reading the following brief descriptions of each of the identifiable submission recommendations that contributors may encounter and specific examples of how to respond to them. Notably, many responses go beyond these short examples by sending a detailed description of the publication’s reasons for a recommendation. One of the benefits of this review process, as opposed to a simpler “yes or no” process, is that it helps contributors reevaluate their own writing. Additional information or supplementary documents may also be given to help contributors develop their writing skills or revision process. Along with a brief explanation of each suggested recommendation, we provide examples of feedback that may be given within each category as well as models of how to respond.

“Accept for Publication”

A status of “Accept for Publication” is given if the submission is free of large errors and can be coherently understood by the audience (i.e., the reviewer). This status is rarely given to the first submission; rather, it is usually given after one or more rounds of revision and reevaluation.

Even if a manuscript is accepted for publication, additional feedback will likely be given to help improve both the accepted text and the writer’s future work. This feedback will provide guidance and insight on how the reviewers (a sample of the article’s audience) interpret the submission. Understanding such feedback may be confusing for a first-time contributor, but it presents a great opportunity to learn from others.

Below are some examples of a response for an article that was given an “Accept for Publication” status. The first is an example of this status given on the rare occasion of the first submission. The second was given to a manuscript after being revised and resubmitted for review. Following each reviewer’s comments, we offer suggestions about how to respond.

Examples of feedback and response

1a.Thank you for submitting “Title” to The Peer Review, which we are pleased to “Accept for Publication.” According to the reviewers, your manuscript makes an important contribution to ______. To continue with the publication process, please review the enclosed comments and reply with your decision to proceed with the publication process.

1b. Thank you for your recommendation of “Accept for Publication” for “Title.” I reviewed your comments and have addressed them in the attached supplementary document. I would like to continue in the publication process because I believe that this topic is relevant to writing center studies. Please let me know the next step in the process and I will oblige accordingly.

2a.Thank you for revising and resubmitting “Title” to The Peer Review. We can see that you have addressed our comments. We feel that your revised manuscript adds to current writing center understanding and therefore deem it “Accepted for Publication.” Please email us back with your decision on proceeding with the publication process.

2b.Thank you for your recommendation of “Accept for Publication” for “Title.” I greatly appreciated the ample feedback I received from the reviewers. I would like to continue in the publication process, so please let me know the next step.

“Revise and Resubmit for Possible Publication”

If a contributor receives a “Revise and Resubmit” recommendation from a journal, it means that the manuscript needs revision. Issues may pertain to organization, structure, or idea development. The reviewer most likely will comment on specific areas within the manuscript that an audience member would not understand. This status is given to most contributors, and it should not be thought of as a failure; it leads to improvement and often yields a publication.

Below is an example of feedback that may be given along with this status and how a contributor might respond. For this type of feedback, it is important to remember that it is okay to disagree with the reviewer’s comments if they pertain to authorship. In other words, it is important to explain yourself when responding to the editors. While reviewers may misunderstand the connections being made throughout the manuscript, it is the author’s job to respond and revise the sections so that the purpose of the manuscript is clear. Before responding, evaluate your work and read through all comments to gain a better understanding of the reviewer’s point of view. When resubmitting your work, address those changes you chose not to make as well as those that you did.

Example of feedback and response

1a. Thank you for submitting “Title” to The Peer Review. We write to tell you that your submission has received a recommendation of “Revise and Resubmit for Possible Publication.” Our reviewers have given feedback on the manuscript and are requesting that it be revised before resubmitting for publication. Although the manuscript grounds itself in existing scholarship effectively, the overall goal of the manuscript is unclear. Please review the comments and email us back with your decision on how you would like to proceed.

1b. Thank you for your recommendation of “Revise and Resubmit for Possible Publication” regarding “Title.” I have read your comments and have addressed your concerns in the attached supplementary document. Please note that I justified why I decided to connect such research to my topic in the literature review. I would like to resubmit this manuscript for possible publication, so please let me know what I need to do to proceed further.

“Reject for Publication”

Receiving a status of “Reject” may seem very discouraging to a first-time contributor. However, it is important to understand that there are many reasons for a rejection: one, the manuscript may need some extensive revision because of a lack of clarity; two, the discussion topic may not be deemed within the journal’s purview; three, the contributor may have misunderstood the journal’s requirements about the act of submitting for publication. While getting upset is common, it is still important to closely examine the feedback to learn why it was not accepted. Try to see it from your reviewer’s or audience’s point of view and ask yourself a few questions: 1) Does this work relate to current scholarship? 2) Does it successfully demonstrate my research topic or interest? 3) Can it be clearly understood by the audience? The experience of receiving a rejection can strengthen your scholarly identity because it helps you learn from your mistakes and to better anticipate  others’ viewpoints.

Below is an example of feedback given along with a rejection status and a sample response. It is important for contributors to remember that a response should still be given, even if he or she feels discouraged. Sending a response not only demonstrates professionalism, but may also show that the contributor is willing to learn from the experience.

Example of feedback and response

1a. Thank you for submitting “Title” to The Peer Review. We write to tell you that your submission has been reviewed and has unfortunately not been accepted for publication. Review of the manuscript has shown that it does not relate to current studies. Further, there are many gaps in the literature review and structural errors. Please look at the feedback that has been given and reevaluate the goal of your research.

1b.Thank you for your review of  “Title.” In looking at the reviewer’s comments, I see that the takeaway of my research is strained as presented. Please know that I will be revising my submission to explore more current interpretations of my previous findings. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Conclusion

The goal of this publication is to prepare the next generation of researchers and scholars, providing a forum in which they can share their work and facilitate collaboration. We hope that our discussion will inspire you to confidently begin, revise, and submit your projects to scholarly journals.

References

Blair, A., Curtis, S., Goodwin, M. Shields, S. (2013). Learning and teaching in politics and international studies: What feedback do students want? Politics 33(1), 66-79. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.2012.01446.x

Bol, L. & Hacker, D. J. (2014). Publishing in high quality journals: Perspectives from overworked and unpaid reviewers. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 26, 39-53.  doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.2012.01446.x

Cowling, R. (2012). The meaning of a review decision: The road to publication. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 30(4) 218-219. doi: 10.1177/0898010112464943

Handy, F., Brudney, J. L., Meijis, L. C. P. M. (2014). From the editors’ desk. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(2) 225-226. DOI: 10.1177/0899764014527123

MacPhail, T. (2014, December 10). Revise and resubmit series, part 1: Coping with criticism. Vitae. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/830-the-revise-and-resubmit-series-part-1-coping-with-criticism

Nelson, M., M. & Schunn, C. D. (2009). The nature of feedback: How different types of feedback affect writing performance. Instructional Science, 37(4): 375-401

Schuman, R. (2014, July 15). Revise and resubmit! Peer review is slow. It’s unhelpful. It’s generally awful. Here’s how to fix it. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/07/the_easy_way_to_fix_peer_review_require_submitters_to_review_first.html

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