This week’s exciting task – besides all the usual end of term stuff like marking, revision sessions, meetings with tutees and dissertation supervisees, writing emails to tutees and dissertation supervisees reminding them of the opportunity to come and see me before the end of term, writing emails to tutees and dissertation supervisees to point out the obvious advantages of coming to talk to me and to express a certain hurt that they haven’t even seen fit to respond… Ahem. This week’s exciting extra task has been to compile and submit a Rebuttal to the reviewers’ comments on a research project application that I’ve been coordinating with colleagues from across Europe. The content was fine, as said colleagues produced lots of great ideas and pithy responses, and my job was largely to hack this down into just 1200 words. A much bigger problem, as far as I was concerned, was the terminology.
I mean, ‘rebuttal’? “A form of evidence that is presented to contradict or nullify other evidence that has been presented by an adverse party.” Is this what we’re calling it now? Given that this is an application to European funds, could this just be a translation issue? It seems like a remarkably legalistic, if not downright aggressive, way of characterising this stage in peer review. We’re generally encouraged to think of the reviewers as colleagues, offering careful and objective professional opinion that is motivated solely by the wish to promote the highest quality of research and the best allocation of limited resources – not as adversaries. The term seems more appropriate for the dog-eat-dog world of the law, or politics, or championship debate…
The problem is of course not that this choice of term might make us think of peer reviewers as adversaries, or at least potential adversaries – we already do that, I suspect, or at least resent and mistrust them as the people who have unlimited power over us and our applications. A few careless words, a failure to understand a perfectly clear explanation, an inability to control the urge to describe the alternative research project that they would have designed and which clearly would have been better than ours, a carefully-calibrated theoretical scepticism, or even just an unexplained lack of enthusiasm*, and months of careful work can be casually tossed aside. Even without the edge of paranoia that promotes suspicions about the identity of certain, obviously biased and malicious, reviewers, there’s a clear temptation to tell reviewers exactly what we think of their suggestions, and to explain to the funding authorities why they shouldn’t take a blind bit of notice of their imbecilities. The idea of ‘rebuttal’ – explicitly demolishing and discrediting the arguments and claims of the reviewer so that they will be rejected and ignored – can feel like an appropriate approach when it’s named in this way, whereas an invitation to offer a ‘response’ implies something much milder, saving the angry stuff for late-night grousing at conferences.
But answering reviewers’ comments in such a forthright, confrontational manner would be a terrible idea in almost all circumstances. If we run with the legal analogy for a bit, the reviewer is something like an expert witness, rather than the prosecutor; in other words, in theory at least, not our actual adversary. We’re not allowed to call our own expert witnesses to offer alternative opinions – well, except in so far as we offer our own claims to expertise in the response – and, while we can certainly disparage the credibility of the reviewer, that doesn’t necessarily look good when our motives for doing so are obviously suspect. We risk undermining our own credibility, not least by admitting to doubts about the entire edifice of peer review, if we confront the reviewers head on and seek to dismiss their opinions, and by implication their authority. Stepping outside the norms of academic culture is generally unlikely to result in being rewarded by that culture.
The equivalent of the more subtle “I totally accept expert witness Dr X’s credentials, but don’t think his evidence means what the prosecution claims it means” line of argument is “we’re enormously grateful for the reviewer’s constructive suggestions, and will certainly consider them, but…” Defusing, rather than confronting, potentially damaging criticism, all the while conveying our own absolute reasonableness, respect for the culture of peer review and intellectual endeavour, denying that anyone involved in the process is motivated by anything other than the values of truth and integrity, showing openness to new ideas and willingness to examine our own, and, just occasionally, highlighting the excesses of a really hostile and unfair review by offering the mildest possible expression of mild regret and bemusement, turning the review’s aggression against itself. Grasshopper.
So, in the end, despite having been asked for a Rebuttal, I labelled my response as a Response. Peer review isn’t like a courtroom; it’s more like a royal court, governed by complex etiquette and unwritten rules of deportment. Underneath, of course, it’s all about power, money, influence, patronage, seething jealousies and resentments – but if you behave in a way that acknowledges that, you’ve already lost the game.
*If you don’t have any actual criticisms, and have said various positive things about the dissemination and impact plans, then why the hell have you graded this as merely ‘Good’, you bastard? Kiss of death…