Conflicting reviewer comments are one of the most frustrating aspects of the peer review process. It is understandable to be irritated when, for example, Reviewer 1 wants you to remove Table 1, but Reviewer 2 wants you to expand Table 1. Or Reviewer 1 says “drop the STRUCTURE analysis and provide only the AMOVA”; Reviewer 2 says “drop the AMOVA and provide only the STRUCTURE analysis” . In this blog, we discuss how best to handle conflicting reviewer comments.
First, check if the editor has commented
It is the editor’s job to spot conflicting comments and provide guidance to authors. They are the gatekeepers of the journal and are in the best position is know which reviewer suggestions should be implemented and which should be ignored. Carefully read the letter from the editor to see if they have commented on the issue.
The editor has not commented
This can be a good thing – it gives you more control. Imagine Reviewer 1 says “You have used the wrong staining method to visualise X. Consider using the Y method”. When you read this comment, you immediately realise that their suggestion will greatly improve your paper. Now imagine Reviewer 2 asks you to use the Z staining method to better visualise X. You wholeheartedly disagree with this suggestion; however, the editor has sided with Reviewer 2 in the decision letter! In this case, you’ve lost the majority. However, if the editor fails to comment, this gives you the opportunity to implement Reviewer 1’s suggestion and the time to carefully present your reasoning to the editor.
Look for a common thread
If two reviewers make a comment on a particular area of your paper, even if the comments are conflicting, this should tell you something. For example, Reviewer 1 says “It appears the true objective of this study is X. Please reframe the introduction accordingly” and Reviewer 2 says “It appears the true objective of this study is Y”. These comments are conflicting; however, combined, they tell you that the objective of your study is unclear. Often a reviewer will know that something is wrong intuitively but may not know exactly what is wrong or how to correct it. This is usually where problems arise, as the reviewers then offer (often very different) suggestions for how to correct the issue.
Pick a side and stick to it
It would be foolish to try and please both reviewers. Pick whichever suggestion you think would most improve your paper and implement those changes. You may be worried that this will offend the other reviewer, but this can be handled in the response letter. Transparency is always the best policy and it is likely the reviewers have had to deal with conflicting reviewer comments in their own work and will sympathise. Therefore, in the response letter, you could say, for example:
“Thank you for pointing out this inconsistency. Reviewer 2 also remarked on this issue; however, they suggested it would be better to X. After careful consideration, we have decided that this option would most improve our paper. We have revised the text as following and would appreciate your input on these changes….”.
Can’t see the wood for the trees
A fresh pair of (expert) eyes looking over a paper is what makes peer review so valuable. Most authors struggle to stand back and view their work objectively. You may be annoyed when a reviewer misses a point that you thought was glaringly obvious. However, always remember, if a reviewer missed it, it is likely others will miss it.
“Remind yourself that even a horrible, critical review tells one thing about your writing: You lost someone.” 
Reviewer 1 says “The manuscript was poorly written and I found it difficult to read”. Reviewer 2 says “The manuscript was well written and easy to follow”.
You may be tempted to side with Reviewer 2 and use their comment as ammunition against Reviewer 1 in the response letter. However, remember – “you lost someone”. If Reviewer 1 found it difficult to follow, it is likely other readers will also find it difficult. Almost always, it is better to revise the language and it shows the contesting reviewer that they were “listened to and understood” .
Reviewer 1 says “elaborate on paragraph X”. Reviewer 2 says “Paragraph X is unnecessary information. Please remove”.
There is a common thread here. Both reviewers have commented on paragraph X. This should tell you that paragraph X (and possibly the surrounding paragraphs) need work.
Reviewer 1 says “The authors’ perspective in this review is informed in large part by their own recent findings. They should endeavour to provide a more balanced perspective”. Reviewer 2 says “The authors provide a balanced perspective on this topic”.
First, check that you have included all studies that run counter to your assertions. Have you been fair to competing authors? Then review each self-citation – are each of them essential, or are some only tenuously linked? If you believe Reviewer 1’s comment is unsubstantiated, then you should make an argument for this in the response letter, discussing the relevance of each citation if you must. Comments like these are often why response letters are considerably longer than the revised manuscript.
At a loss…
If you really cannot decide which reviewer comment to implement, seek the guidance of the editor.
- Schafthuizen A. 2019. I love it when reviewers make conflicting suggestions. Scientist Sees Squirrel [blog]. Available from: https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2019/03/12/i-love-it-when-reviewers-make-conflicting-suggestions/
- MacPhail T. 2015. The revise and resubmit series, Part 2: Deciphering reviewer comments. Available from: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/875-the-revise-and-resubmit-series-part-2-deciphering-reviewer-comments
- Noble WS. Ten simple rules for writing a response to reviewers. PLoS computational biology. 2017 Oct;13(10). Available from: https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005730