A letter to reviewer 2


Dear Reviewer 2,

I guess your ears often burn. You know how it is when people read your reviews. That must be hard for you – I know you spend time reading and working out what to say. I also guess you must be used to getting letters which answer back and/or show how trying to follow your advice has produced a paper unsatisfactory to its writer. And I guess you may even, from time to time, get a letter like this one, querying your understandings of research and of research writing.

Im writing because I’ve noticed that you’ve recently become pretty fixated on three things. You pursue these as if there are hard and fast rules about how this trio is to be dealt with. You don’t seem to get that while academic writing largely follows conventions, these can be shifted about a bit, and sometimes a lot.

So what are these three things? Well they are:

  • The research question and design. I’ve noticed, Reviewer 2, that you developed a marked tendency to approve of particular types of questions and work. The result looks a lot like you think the only research worth doing is either a systematic review or something which establishes a causal or correlative effect. You do seem to consider “What works” as The Question we all should address. But you know that other questions are also important. And OK. There’s the “Who gets what, why and how and who benefits?” question. And the “What happens if or when… ? question. Or “What’s actually going on here”? Not to mention research that isn’t a question at all, but more of a “How about if we think about this in another way?” or the “When we bring this together with that set of literatures we might frame our research/work/teaching differently…” And so on. You get the picture. I hope you get the picture. If you do you’ll appreciate that you really shouldn’t say that research isn’t significant if it doesn’t follow your favorite One or Two approaches to research. You might say the paper is not for this journal. But not that it’s flawed simply because it’s addressing a question you don’t like. I see research as a pretty broad church and a good reviewer as someone who looks for work that is meaningful and well carried out within its own tradition.
  • Working with literatures. You also seem to have pretty set ideas about what literatures work looks like Yes, a literatures section is often a convenient way for a writer to indicate where the paper sits in the field, what it draws on and what it adds or questions. But what if there isn’t a literature section? If the paper irrevocably flawed without one? No. Not necessarily. Not having a literatures section does not mean that the writer has not read thoroughly. This may be the case, but it may not. It may simply be that the writer has chosen to locate their work, show how they have used other people’s work and made a contribution by using literatures throughout their paper. And let’s face it, a literature section is hardly a thorough review is it? Unless it is a literatures paper, a literature section is simply a quick summary of a wider underpinning review. So Reviewer 2, your job is not to look for a Literatures section per se, or to condemn a paper if it doesn’t have one, but rather to see whether the  writer has used literatures to do the work of locating, building and contributing.
  • Methods and design. Well what can I say here? Reviewer 2 you do sometimes seem to be a poor reader. Even when the text says “full details of the research design are provided on URL” you still insist on every detail being given again in the paper. That’s the point of hyperlinks surely. You can go to the full report or data set and see it as glorious minutiae. Yes, of course the paper needs to say enough to reassure readers that what they are about to receive is ethical, sound and trustworthy. And some journals do require more details than others. But what could be more trustworthy than making the whole shebang open? And there’s the rub. OK Reviewer 2. Asking for loads more detail about methods might not be all your fault. Not having enough detail may actually be a problem created by blind peer review. The writer can’t give you their URL where all of the information resides because the URL identifies them and their work. And because you can’t see  the detail and evaluate it – and that’s your job after all – you feel you must say that the detail has to be in the paper. So the writer dutifully puts all the stuff in – and the result can be like a rather long ad break coming before the interesting bits. I get that you can’t and probably ought not trust the writer. But perhaps there is some kind of midway here, and there is certainly no need to write your review to imply that the researcher-writer is incompetent just because you can’t follow up their URL.

Yes I could go on, Reviewer 2. But I won’t. I do appreciate your efforts. Really I do. But you must know that my own and other people’s writing lives would be a lot easier if you just stopped being so dogmatic and accusatory about non-existent rules and structural difficulties. Get with the programme. I’m just about to send off another paper and I really would welcome you getting a bit more sensible and sensitive about research questions, literatures work and research methods and design. How about it? Start now.

Yours, hopefully.