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By Claire Aitchison

I was stuck recently in a conundrum – ready to submit my carefully worded review of a manuscript for a well know scholarly journal, but uncertain as to whether I should tick ‘major’ or ‘minor’ revision required. And this isn’t the first time I’ve found this decision difficult. What might be considered a minor revision for one person, could be major for another.

In this particular example, my request didn’t require more than a small paragraph of additional writing, plus some well-placed rhetorical sentences.  In that sense I was looking for a relatively minor change to the text – the article didn’t need major rewriting or restructuring. There was nothing inherently wrong with the paper. The author had a really interesting and valuable contribution to make. They had a sound argument and had nominated appropriate theoretical and methodological frames, and they had great data.

In essence I had two requests: I was asking for some clarification about the methodology which could be satisfied in one or two sentences. A relatively small ask if the author was familiar with the nominated method. My second request was that they explicitly integrate the theoretical frame they claimed to be using in their data analysis.  Now, if the author wasn’t really familiar with the theory, then in order to respond to this criticism, they would need to do some new reading and thinking.  In this case, therefore, they would need to undertake some major work in order to prepare the revision – even though the revision itself may only be altered by some couple of hundred words.

So back to my role as a reviewer – do I tick the box for Major or Minor revision required? I checked the ‘Instructions to reviewers’ and found the information there less than useful for helping me make the best choice. The problem, as I saw it, was that relatively minor textual changes were required, but depending on the knowledge and rhetorical dexterity of the author, achieving these changes may be a major task.

Now there’s another aspect to this that, in a perfect world, shouldn’t impact on reviewer decision making … but I suspect often does. In most of the journals I review for, if the submission is deemed to require only minor changes, then the reviewer isn’t expected to reassess the resubmission. MMnn, you know where I’m heading with this – by ticking minor changes required, I can save myself another couple of hours work … and that’s a pretty seductive option for any already overburdened academic.

What would you have done? Have you been challenged by similar or other or reviewing conundrums?

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