Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

Those of us who write academic papers often describe the process of responding to reviewers as a negotiation, and a tough one at that. But is that just a handy metaphor or does the process of responding to reviewers really look anything like buying a car or requesting a raise? The answer matters because the latter possibility implies that the negotiation literature could actually teach us something useful about the review process.

I’m here to argue that responding to reviewers is, in essence, a negotiation. Thus, the negotiation literature does have something to teach us and can, in fact, make the review process more negotiable. I could write a book on the topic, and maybe someday I will. But now let me lay out five basic principles from negotiation research that can readily improve how we respond to reviewers:

  1. Concessions: When young scholars receive their first review, they often react in one of two ways. They either: a) fire offer a vitriolic response letter indicating how few of the reviewers’ brain cells are operable, or b) tear up the first draft of their own paper and start afresh. In other words, they tend to make no concessions or a ginormous concession. The research on concessions in negotiation suggests that neither response is optimal. Instead, the best concessions are real and meaningful but also not so huge as to undermine a person’s own interests. Better than either of the above responses, then, is to consider the reviewer’s comments carefully and make meaningful changes that reflect them, but never lose sight of your vision for the paper and thus lose control.
    2. Interests versus positions: Oftentimes, reviewers ask us to do things to our manuscripts that seemingly make no sense. In other words, they take positions that seem irreconcilable with our own. In these situations, we can take a cue from Getting to Yes, which advises us to focus on interests rather than positions. Much as the specific request a reviewer is making (“I’d like to see you do X”) might make little sense, the concern underlying the suggestion (the interest) is often substantially more valid. Moreover, once you understand it, you can often address it quite readily, albeit in a potentially different way—and your different way can often satisfy the reviewer even better.
    3. Listening and building trust: Acting as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is a response letter indicating that an author has not really read or considered my comments. They might’ve read and responded to the first half of a particularly important comment, for example, but neither said nor done anything about the second—hoping, perhaps, that I somehow miss the omission. Or they might’ve referred me to their answers somewhere else in the response letter—answers that I either can’t find or that don’t address the comment in question. As a reviewer, this has the effect of destroying my trust. I spent my own time trying to help an author, and here they are, the hot shot, signaling: “I’m not listening—I don’t care.” The research on trust in negotiation suggests that there is no better way to destroy a negotiation. As authors, we can do better, if only by always responding to every point every reviewer makes, even if we have to disagree or repeat some sentiments expressed elsewhere in a response letter.
    4. Asking questions: Oftentimes, a reviewer asks us to do something. We do something and say “here’s what I did.” There’s no dialogue: we assume we did what was requested, thank you very much, and we assume that the reviewer will obviously agree. Barring the obvious “drop the extra line break” or “make this heading italic” type comment, which don’t require much dialogue, why not at least occasionally ask the reviewer whether our response actually addressed his or her concern? Something like: “Here’s what I did. Did I address your comment sufficiently? If not, can you please let me know how to address it better?” Perhaps we think that avoiding such questions will prevent us from having to endure another round of reviews. (There’s gonna be one anyway.) Or perhaps we really don’t care whether the reviewer is pleased. (But if we’d better if want to see our ideas published.) Either way, asking questions seems like a worthwhile strategy (in moderation).
    5. Separating the people from the problem: Unfortunately, some reviewers are just downright nasty. Notwithstanding any of our own overtures to build trust or ask questions, they appear to despise not only our work but our entire selves. Or at least that’s what we gather from the tone of their reviews. Even more unfortunately, we often see such reviews as an excuse to respond in kind. We lose sight of the underlying goal and instead launch our own personal tirade. Or perhaps we even go behind the reviewer’s back and complain to the editor. Inappropriate as the reviewer’s behavior may be—and is—we just can’t respond in kind. Once again, Getting to Yes provides some guidance: “separating the people from the problem.” Despite the reviewer’s problem with us as people—and thus our problem with them—we have to find a way to detect the substance buried deep in their pile of poison, responding per points #3 and 4 regardless.

I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on responding to reviews. If I had a penny for every rejection…

Still, I do think these basic lessons from the negotiation literature can help us navigate the choppy waters of the review process, emerging at some port somewhere instead of sinking to the bottom of the sea.


One thought on “Responding to reviewers: Lessons from negotiation research

  1. Pingback: “It’s not fair!” | Brian Gunia

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