Navigating contradicting referee reports
Gary McCulloch, Editor of British Journal of Educational Studies
One thing that I have learned over time, and which I wish I could have known a lot earlier, is how common it is for two academics in the same area of study to have completely different views of the same article. It is not at all unusual for one to say that a particular article should be published more or less as it stands, while another is emphatic that it should not be published under any circumstances.
This is not to say that I was unaware that this can happen from my own academic experience. One of my earliest submissions to an academic journal suffered exactly this fate. One referee was very enthusiastic and supported publication. The second devoted no fewer than ten pages to an explanation of why this piece should not be published. In this case, the journal editor was my saviour; he actually phoned me to tell me what had happened and to give me some wise advice. He then wrote formally to propose some minor and judicious revisions, and the article was published soon afterwards; not a bad piece if I do say so myself.
I think there are lessons in this experience for all parties involved. Both referees made some important points. The first saw the originality of the paper, while the second, much though I was unwilling to see it at the time, also had some valid criticisms (I should say that I still have both reports and the one from referee two reads a lot better now than it did then). As a new writer with little experience of such things I could have been discouraged and put the draft article into a bottom drawer, but it was possible to have it published with relatively few changes to the piece. It is the role of the editor concerned that shines through for me here. It was he who made the decision to draw together these very different reviews and to work with the author to come up with a published article.
As I say, I now have a lot more experience of such matters and would say that the editorial contribution is crucial in such cases. It is important not to simply send on two diverging views to the author, and it may not be helpful to seek a third view which often muddies the water further (the classic ‘yes-no-maybe’) although this can be suitable in some cases. Where possible, a little constructive advice on how to make use of the views of the referees can make all the difference, and the editor has the responsibility of deciding when and how to do this. As an editor, this is something that I try to do and is part of what makes the editorial role interesting and fulfilling for me personally, although you should not necessarily expect a phone call from out of the blue.