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10/05/2020

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Tim

First, a bias admission. I belong to the camp that does not normally value reviewer comments. I almost always read them. And I find a large percentage--maybe 75%?--unhelpful to useless. I do change my papers periodically when I receive comments. But I wanted to flag my bias.

Second, in my own experience, vague admissions of "I don't get this" or "its unclear why..." or "this idea need to be improved..." etc. are not helpful. For me, the problem is straightforward. If I knew there was a defect in what I had written, I would have tried to fix it before I had submitted it. But being told that someone else thinks there is a defect does not tell me what the defect is. (And--in line with my bias--I'm inclined to think on the basis of statistical reasons that there might not be a defect at all.) But if I don't know what he defect is supposed to be, then I don't even know how to begin to fix it. In fact, if anything, I find such comments frustrating. For they tell me that a reviewer is displeased and dislikes a portion of my paper/argument, but I can't figure out how to fix them! It can make revising a paper for a journal feel like shooting in the dark.

But I would be curious if my opinion is in the minority. It has happened before!

Evan

I understand Tim’s frustration, but I’ve never published a paper before. However, I once got a ’C’ on a paper without any justification or comments from my professor. Without such justification, I was led to wonder several things: 1) What exactly is problematic about my paper?; 2) does my professor hold any bias against me?; and 3) am I being intellectually gaslighted? The positive side is that I have received an ’A’ on a paper without justification too. But either way, I’ll never truly know *why* my paper was mediocre or good. And if I don’t know, then I can’t improve.

Without justification, I’ve been led to face two dilemmas: Feeling intellectually gaslighted and imposter syndrome/attitude. Without justification or feedback, your students may feel these two things. How are students supposed to know if they’re on the right track or if their efforts are truly worthwhile if they get grades on their papers without justification from their teachers? They probably won’t.

When I got an ’A’ without justification, I ended up asking myself: Did I truly deserve and ’A’?

My situation was on the extreme end. Getting an undesired grade without any justification is a red flag to me. I think a rejection without any comment would be unjust too. It’s a tricky thing when offering feedback. Sometimes, the reviewer may not be a fan of the topic and may just be intellectually gaslighting the author thereby accusing the paper of being ”unclear” and trying to change the trajectory of it. Sometimes, they are genuine and truly don’t understand what’s being written. It’s hard to know since we can’t read minds.

Most people aren’t very good at looking at their papers from a disinterested or objective perspective. At least, until they haven’t read it in a long time.

As well, if the paper was initially written with the intent to just pump-out papers, the author may not have much interest in improving it since he or she may be just publishing it to meet the demands of their department or university.

anon

For me, the vague suggestion to look at the two paragraphs would cause me to re-read the two paragraphs, and to briefly reflect whether I think they need more signposting with respect to their purpose. But depending on how that process goes, I might make no changes in response to such a comment.

I take your overall point here, and I do think that in many cases, even when I didn't make quite the fix the referee thought I would make, the referee's comments were still an important occasion for me to reflect and change particular parts of the manuscript.

However, in my experience, "It's something you need to fix" is too strong a statement. I've now published multiple papers that went through multiple R&Rs where me and a referee ultimately ended up in a deadlock - they say I haven't explained why P follows from Q, I say I have, and then I manage to convince the editor that no further changes are necessary. I think I started off too deferential to referees, and that it's important for authors to know that sometimes it makes sense to stand your ground.

Assistant Professor

I find Helen's suggestion here really useful both as a writer and a reviewer. As a writer: I appreciate someone being direct about what is not clear, what is unconvincing, or what is downright confusing. They don't have to tell me how to fix it, or even to fix it. I agree that the fact a reader had this reaction means I could improve that sentence/paragraph/section in question. I would also value this kind of feedback, which I think can be done in charitable, not unkind, ways. The reviewer feedback I find least helpful is when a reviewer decides to take issue with one of my claims by denying/negating it without giving arguments for why. In theory, I am an expert on my topic, which is why I am writing about it, and they are an expert on the topic, which is why they are reviewing it, and perhaps we have a reasonable disagreement - but that we disagree is not necessarily cause to reject a paper. If a reviewer instead said: "you didn't convince me here" I would know that I have work to do, not just think that this person is doubling down on their own contrary position from mine.

As a reviewer I really like this idea because I think it helps remedy imposter syndrome about reviewing: if you are being asked to review a paper someone has confidence in your philosophical abilities, and if those abilities lead you to find a part of a paper confusing or unclear as a reader, then that is important feedback to an author (and the journal). While I can see that some people like philosophical conversations to be so specialized and erudite as to exclude any non-specialists from participating in the conversation, I don't accept this as a reasonable goal for philosophy (if it is to have any meaningful use). If I can't understand a part of your paper, then it probably is not clear, not just that I don't "get it."

P K

I second Helen's approach. Along the same lines, when I feel like a referee has missed the point or misinterpreted what I'm saying, that's another similar clue that I can take responsibility for conveying my ideas more clearly.

Sometimes, they've wanted me to say something that I have actually said, but they've somehow missed it. In those cases, I've made sure to emphasize that point: if they missed it despite looking for it, I likely wasn't highlighting it enough, and even if I was, it probably doesn't hurt to highlight it even more.

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