“Zwischen Reiz und Reaktion liegt ein Raum. In diesem Raum haben wir die Freiheit und die Macht unsere Reaktion zu wählen. In unserer Reaktion liegen unser Wachstum und unsere Freiheit.”
“There is a space between stimulus and reaction. In this space we have the freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Viktor Emil Frankl
Those of us who have already written a paper, maybe even submitted it to a journal, know the feeling: the last word is written, the submission button is clicked, there is nothing to do but wait and revel in the feeling of pride to have finished it. And, of course, in the nervousness and anticipation of what your reviewers are going to say about it. With this high of emotions, what happens, when we actually get our reviews and they are less than stellar? We all know about the stereotype of the evil Reviewer 2, gatekeeper extraordinaire. But how do we deal with actually encountering them?
Well – as always, the answer is not straightforward. I think, in the end, everyone needs to deal with it in their own way, but let me tell you what I do in this case. Don’t get me wrong: most reviews I got so far were actually really helpful; they pointed out flaws I never considered, provided me with new insights on my topic, and definitely helped me improve my paper even further. But there were also times when I just felt completely frustrated after reading my reviews – especially when I felt that the person reviewing my paper was simply expressing biased opinions (rather than objective critique), or that they had somehow misunderstood the purpose of my paper (or at least parts of it). In those moments, I would read the comments and find them completely useless, unhelpful, and not at all justified; in short – I would be angry. Here I was, having spent hours upon hours readying my manuscript for publication, and this other person couldn’t even bother reading the paper properly? Couldn’t bother to put their personal feelings on the matter I was discussing aside?
I started dealing with those feelings the way I always do when I am frustrated or angry: I get up from my desk and make some tea. I also tend to send voice-recorded rants on the topic to a friend (and fellow linguistics PhD student). And sometimes, I also just let it rest, sleep on it, and take care of it another day when I feel more up to it.
Because one thing is certain: My work is personal. My work is emotional. Sure, science communication needs to be professional, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that doing research is not an emotional process! I really think that this is one of the most important things to understand: it is normal to feel frustrated. It is normal to feel angry. It is normal to be emotional about your work that you have put a ton of time and sweat into. But – and this is just as important to realise – this is the moment in which “we have the freedom and power to choose our response” (to quote Frankl). Because responding to the reviews, we must.
I usually do the following: After having tea (or having slept on it), I make a list of all the individual points that the reviewer made. Then I go through them, one by one, and try to discern whether this one point actually makes sense and can help me improve my paper, or whether it is really a useless comment (like my feelings tell me). The devil, as always, is in the detail: sometimes only parts of a comment are unhelpful, while the rest of it actually makes sense. Untangling these individual points is not easy, so take your time. In the end, you need to discern what you should actually address and change in your paper, and what you can ignore. I also write down my immediate thoughts on each point – my next steps in addressing the comment or even my thoughts on it not making any sense. At this point, I don’t really have to worry about the way it reads, because no one except me will ever get to see that first draft of my response. This process really helps, because there have been times when I had initially judged some comments to be unfair that later made sense to me when I got some emotional distance.
Another step in this process is of course to have another look at your manuscript. Sometimes, I was sure the point I wanted to make was obvious (and the reviewer just hadn’t read the paper carefully before responding), when in fact I later realised that someone who isn’t reading the paper with all my prior knowledge was never explicitly advised on the point I wanted to get across. In such moments, I think it is important to remind yourself that you are not infallible, and that the reviewers most likely are also just trying to help you and support you in order to make your paper even better.
There are, of course, points that are still pointless for your paper – just as you are, the reviewers are also just people who might make mistakes or bring their own bias into the communication. In such cases, you can of course formulate a response that indicates that this comment is not really relevant for your paper – but be careful: you need to support this response with facts that illustrate why the reviewer’s comments are not justified. Of course, these responses should be formulated respectfully and professionally. In order to make sure that my tone isn’t too disrespectful, I always have someone else read over them before sending them out.
So, in summary, my advice would be this: Be emotional about reviewer feedback. It is completely normal. But don’t let those emotions blind you. Instead, take a step back and re-evaluate your reaction at a later point. Talk to people you trust about it. And then: choose your response.