What did that peer reviewer actually mean?



We all know that real estate agents write in code. Renovation potential means it’s a dump. First home buyer’s dream means it’s a dump. Original condition means it’s a dump.

Now, journal reviewers have codes too. You may find that sometimes you get reviews where it isn’t immediately obvious what you are being asked to do. That’s because the review is written in reviewer-speak. Reviewer-speak  varies by disciplinary community and by cultural location. As well, each reviewer has their own idiosyncratic way of telling the writer what they think, some less polite than others. But there are patterns in reviewer-speak. It is possible to identify it when you see it.  Here are a few examples:

I suggest that author read further about…

It would be helpful if the writer took account of…

The paper could benefit from…

The author(s) might familiarise themselves with…

It would be worth the writer citing…

So making suggestions about what to change in the paper is common. Well that’s not too hard. These are things you might do. They are not even recommendations. Just possibilities, right?


These are not suggestions. Strong reviewer recommendations are often couched politely.  Obliquely even. We all talk about the rude reviewers, but actually many more of your peers write their reviews in this kind of language. Considerately. Hoping you won’t take offence.

But don’t be deceived. The reviewer is basically saying “Do this. And if I get this paper back for re-review and you haven’t done it you’d better have a pretty good explanation for why not.”

And those reviewer ‘suggestions’ often point to very specific actions. For instance:

The most recent writing in the field argues that…  means

“Read more current material and work it in.”

The article would benefit from more detailed information about methods … means

“You need to do some serious work on the methodology section in order for this to be taken seriously.”

The article lacks a compelling conclusion … means

“There is no So What here. I finished the paper and didn’t have a clue why you wrote this. You have to have a message. Simply reporting your research won’t do.”

The author might think about the match between the claims and the results … means

“You think your research says what? Unbelievable. You really need to match up the findings and the claims and implications.”

I’d be a little more cautious in linking x and y … means

“No, they don’t go together. X and Y can’t be linked in this way. You need to change this.”

And of course, the nightmare scenario. Reviewers may appear to be saying different things. Take these excerpts from two reviewer comments:

Reviewer 1: Perhaps it might be helpful to explore the conceptual and theoretical issues around identity and how that links to the issues around power in much more depth.

Reviewer 2: The theoretical approach brings together roles, identity and habitus as if these were commensurate concepts. Identity is not anchored to any theoretical paradigm, Bourdieu is given pretty short shrift and the potential of field theory is not explored. Role theory is used most in the paper even though it could be explicated more fully. One of these approaches needs to be adopted and explicated in detail.

Both comments here do ultimately agree – they say that the writer’s take on identity is confused, perhaps even simplistic and facile. But it would be a mistake to read these comments as minor. Reviewer 1 says more depth while reviewer 2 says in detail. Both of these are code for a text requiring substantial rethinking and rewriting. This is not about a paragraph or a few more references. This is a fundamental reworking of the theoretical basis of the argument.

Now, Reviewer 2 is very direct and more specific. Perhaps verging on rude. Blunt, certainly. However, although both reviewers say much the same thing, the writer might have a much better idea about what to do from Reviewer 2’s comments. In many cases genteel hedging isn’t as helpful as it might be.

This is just one example of the need to decode and read below the surface of reviewer comments.

Of course, simply understanding the reviewer comments is not enough. There is always a choice about how to respond, about what to do. Writers can decide which or any or all of the reviewer comments they will attend to. Many writers, particularly if they’re new, think that they have to follow each and every recommendation slavishly.

Early career writers can treat reviewer reports as a set of exam questions to be answered. One writer Barbara and I know, for example, was critiqued for not showing the significance of her research to the field. Her solution was to insert two pages of additional literature work to show other scholars also addressing her research problem. The result was a mess. Her paper lost focus and balance. She answered the reviewer diligently and methodically, but at the expense of her own argument. A mentor helped her reduce these two pages to one paragraph and acknowledge the point, within reason.

Keeping the integrity of the argument and the article is of paramount concern. Just like writers, reviewers don’t always quite know what they are trying to say. At times, they know there is a problem, but they can’t put their finger on it. So they have a stab at saying what they think is going on – the result is that it’s not always clear what action might resolve the problem.  And reviewers can go off on a tangent; they see something interesting that may not be germane to the main argument. In this instance, the writer may need to say “I’ve made a note that this is a potential area to be explored, but not now.” At other times, reviewers may make suggestions that disrupt the flow of the article or add unduly to the word length.

The writer has to keep their eye on their own purposes – decode and attend to reviewers, yes – but not rigidly. It is important to remember that reviewer comments, however vital to the progress of the publication, are the backstory to the final performance – which is the published article. The actual performance – the paper – must be coherent and stand on its own. You can’t let what happens backstage ruin the production.

And, it always helps to ask experienced writer to help you to translate reviewer-speak and work out what you want to do. And it can be a bit of fun to attend to the codes – in the absence of an actual review. Sharing reviewer-speak is a very educational after-work game. So do add your favorite examples of reviewer-speak in the comments!