Today is the first response to Jess Drake’s question on how to deal with conflicting reviews. I approached Prof. Chris Hamnett and Prof. Matthew Paterson who have previously contributed to the body of advice and information on journal articles particularly revision and rejection. Their previous posts can be seen here (Chris Hamnett) and here (Matthew Paterson). The post below is a synthesis of their advice.
“Conflicting referee’s comments are not unusual. It would be surprising if everyone thought exactly the same. In general journals will go with the majority view from referees which is why many use three referees unless the minority view is so strong and convincing that they are willing to discount, to some extent, the views of the other two. Where one referee thinks the paper is good, but others see areas of weakness, you generally need to deal with these.
The big problem is where referees give contradictory suggestions, for example, one says shrink the theoretical section and expand the empirical section, and the other suggests the opposite. In these cases you need to make a reasoned decision on the basis of a close reading of the referee’s comments as to which, if either, is appropriate. If in real difficulty you could ask the editor for advice pointing to the contradiction. What is always important when you resubmit is to send an accompanying letter to the editor outlining the changes you have made and which referees criticisms they relate to and saying ‘I have addressed points A, B. and C of referee 1 but not point D, as this seems to contradict the recommendation of referee 2’. it is entirely legitimate to say that ‘I have not addressed point E as I believe that this is incorrect’ though you should always try to insert a sentence or two in the paper to explain why you have stuck to your original analysis or point. What editors want to see is a systematic and reasoned response to the main referee’s comments. They do not necessarily expect you to address all of them in the same depth or to agree with all of them. And if one referee recommends cutting X and the other says you should expand X, they cannot both be right” (Chris Hamnett).
So what can you hope for if one reviewer, for example, likes the theory section and wants it expanded and the empirical section shrunk and reviewer two asks for the opposite – can you expect any guidance from the editor?
“A good editor will give you a steer when there is such a conflict – we occasionally write along the lines of ‘you will notice a contradiction between reviewers A and B over issue X. We think you would be better to take A’s comments most seriously.’ i.e. A good editor will provide a certain amount of commentary on the reviews where it will be difficult for the reader to deal with all of them, and also because reviewing is to an extent capricious (another sociology of the review process point relevant here is that it can often involve asking 10 people to review a paper to get 3 to say yes – so as an editor you rarely get all your first choice reviewers and people you trust to give it a really good read, for any given paper)” (Matthew Paterson).
Usefully both of our contributors agree on how to deal with this issue! They also both illustrate that these issues are not uncommon and hopefully your editor will give you an idea of which way to go, however, it may be worth generating a practical strategy for dealing with ‘conflict’ or at least for dealing with how you respond to it when revising your article.
“In my own practice as an author, when I get R&R (which is pretty much always), I use a simple two column table where in the left hand column I copy all the comments from authors, one per box in the table, and in the right, I summarise and explain my response, including referring to which pages the revised text appears, and so on” (Matthew Paterson).