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Thanks Helen, this is all good advice.
I think it's also worth distinguishing between different kinds of helpful/good faith referee comments when deciding whether to revise or resubmit to another journal as is. Some referee comments point out small mistakes, avoidable misunderstandings, or minor objections that are easily fixed without compromising the overall structure and flow of the paper. These are of course worth addressing before a new submission. But some referee comments really amount to substantive counter-arguments of the sort that one might expect to encounter in a response to one's published work, or reflect a disagreement on some fundamental point that you must take for granted for the purposes of your argument. Authors should be cautious about revising in light of these kinds of comments, in my view, because they represent a kind of "referee overkill." By this, I mean that the referee has focused on issues that would be more productively engaged with in public debate and in print, rather than the question of whether your paper would make a good contribution to the literature. Revising your paper in light of comments like these is a waste of time, in my opinion, because no paper should have to pre-emptively respond to *all* potential objections and counter-arguments. Trying to do so usually ends up making one's paper worse.
Notably, referee overkill usually starts out pretty well-intentioned - it's hard to come up with good counterarguments unless you really think hard about a paper. But it also effectively deprives the philosophical community of a debate that might have happened out in the open, and thus totally defeats the purpose of peer review.

Mark van Roojen

This is all really good advice. That you can learn from even bad referee's reports and figure out how to make a paper better unless they don't say anything much at all is worth knowing, as is knowing that a negative verdict at a journal is not the profession's verdict on your work. Nice job of advising on this!

Steven French

Thanks Helen; thats all excellent advice and really helpful. Could I just suggest a practical step: after you've read through the referees' reports, step away! Leave them for a few days, go and do something else ... then go back and read them again. So many times my initial reaction, ranging from a sad shake of the head over how someone could so obviously miss the point to apoplectic rage at the stupidity of their criticisms, has given way on further reflection to something rather more measured and in most cases the comment that triggered my fury has turned out to be on the button, or suggestive or illustrative of my own lack of clarity.

Of course, you might still be enraged on second reading, in which case maybe that particular comment should be ignored!


Thanks, Jon! All good advice!

Peter Furlong

Thanks for the post, Jon. I think this is spot on. The only thing I will add is that referee overkill often becomes noticeable to other readers, or so I am tempted to think. Although I have only confirmed a few cases, I often find myself reading an article or book chapter and find a paragraph or two that is either merely tangentially related or brushes away some fairly strange objection and which is abruptly inserted into the flow of the text. This always makes me think that this was done at the behest of a referee. Perhaps such poor integration is the fault of the author, but most of the time I feel as though the topic addressed would have been best left alone in that particular work. Perhaps, though, I am often mistaken about the cause of such passages.

A Philosopher

Like Peter, I notice the signs of referee overkill in a lot of papers. I recently read a book which seemed to be filled with it, although perhaps it was simply this author's style to preempt every possible objection. In either case, it, I thought, seriously detracted from the flow of the book. I think this is something to think about as a referee: asking authors to respond to objections that only 20-30% of readers will actually be concerned by is not normally helping them to improve their paper.

Tom Cochrane

I think one thing not mentioned yet, but which has become clearer to me over the years (both as author and reviewer) is that if the editors like your paper, they will allow several rounds of revision, even given strong objections. If the editors don't like (or just don't care about) your paper- they will reject for any trivial reason. Editors are the true gatekeepers of our profession and their power is immense.

The upshot is that, as an author, polishing doesn't matter so much. A sympathetic editor will let you do this during revisions anyway. So just make sure the fundamentals are strong and clear.

Meanwhile, your first job as a reviewer is to convince the editor one way or the other. If you like a paper, but you have problems with it, but don't let these bury your support for the paper!

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