It’s a tie! How to deal with conflicting recommendations from reviewers

Strategies for overcoming the times when referees disagree

Reviewer conflict image
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As an editor, you bear a weighty responsibility. The decisions you take on manuscripts determine which are accepted for publication and which are rejected, whether early in the editorial process or after input from referees. Most of the time the comments received from reviewers will assist you in coming to a decision. Sometimes they will validate the impressions that you had already constructed in reading the manuscript when first submitted. At other times, they might guide you to towards a resolution that you would have otherwise struggled to reach on your own – especially for a paper outside your own speciality. Occasionally, however, you will find yourself facing a situation that, alas, inevitably heralds more work: when reviewers disagree.

Conflict!

Perhaps more often than you would like, you will find that referees disagree over what they recommend should happen with a manuscript: one might say “reject” while the second is in favour of acceptance. There are many reasons for such conflict, and each will require a different strategy to overcome, some demanding more complex resolution than others. There are also different degrees of disagreement… One reviewer might simply be advocating a slightly different approach to a paper, whereas in another case the referee may have interpreted the paper in a radically different fashion – and consequently recommends a very different outcome for the paper. This will of course necessitate an approach which is suitable for the case in point.

Reasons, reasons

Perhaps the referees disagree as one of them hasn’t fully engaged with the paper and has therefore emerged with a misinterpretation of its content. A wilful misunderstanding could be at play, however – maybe because the reviewer is an opponent of the research/methods/viewpoints being presented by the author(s). The “best” reason of course is that the referee genuinely feels one way about the paper, having been careful to assess it dispassionately and objectively. This is all well and good if the second referee has done so too and come to the same conclusions but not so if the opposite recommendation is advanced…

How to deal with reviewer conflict

If the disagreements are slight, you may well be able to reconcile the differences and decide either to deprioritize one party’s feedback, or else undertake some back-and-forth with the reviewer in question to see if you they have fully engaged with the paper – and/or if you have correctly interpreted their feedback. If it becomes clear that the disagreements are just too entrenched, however, you are going to have to consider some alternative strategies. Here are the top five suggestions for responding to reviewer conflict:

  1. Exercise your privilege as editor. You’ve been appointed as editor of the journal in part due to your considerable knowledge of the field in question. The simplest way out, therefore, is to make the decision yourself using your own logic/intuition/feeling/interpretation to work out which way to go. At the end of the day, your decision is final and if you can back it up with your own objective assessment of the paper’s merits, you may well find resolution easily.
  2. Get another opinion. If you want to go for a belt-and-braces approach, you might want to consider appointing a new referee. Ideally this will be someone whom you know well and trust to provide a robust, impartial and above all swift review (keep at the front of your mind that there is an author out there nervously waiting for news on their paper…). NB you might want to inform the author that this is going on (if they have already been waiting a significant time) or perhaps simply inform them that you need more time to assess the manuscript.
  3. As editor, you have many resources at your disposal and it’s natural to overlook them at times or not use them to the fullest extent possible. In this scenario, you may well benefit from some trusted help. Therefore, why not ask a member of the Editorial Board to deliver a “tie-breaker” review. One of the standard responsibilities of a Board member is to assist the journal by providing reviews and it is therefore fitting that you might ask one for assistance in reaching an informed decision.
  4. As well as Editorial Board members, it might be that you are working on a multi-editor journal, sharing the work of triaging and deciding on manuscripts with other colleagues. In that case, why not reach out to another editor and ask for their opinion on the paper. Even if they are not a close expert on the topic in hand, their objectivity and distance might provide the perspective you need to make a decision.
  5. Finally, if your journal already operates some form of open peer review, why not ask the community for input on the paper. Even if you’re not working fully with open peer review, it may be that your submission system allows you to talk over the paper in a discussion forum. This is a standard feature in the Editorial Manager system and may provide a “safe” environment for you and the reviewers to discuss the paper and unpick the difference of opinion.

We’re all human so we will, of course, disagree from time to time. In the context of peer review, such disagreement can prove tricky to deal with, yet we hope to have provided some techniques above for how such a scenario could be managed. Is there a method which is missing here? Something that always works for you and which you’d recommend? If so, let us know via the comments below. In the meantime, let’s agree to disagree – albeit with strategies in place for ensuring the journal and its authors don’t suffer as a result!

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