How to respond to reviewers

30 06 2017

Just like there are many styles to writing scientific manuscripts, there are also many ways to respond to a set of criticisms and suggestions from reviewers. Likewise, many people and organisations have compiled lists of what to do, and what not to do, in a response to reviews of your manuscript (just type ‘response to reviewer comments’ or similar phrase into your favourite search engine and behold the reams of available advice).

what

It clearly is a personal choice, but from my own experience as an author, reviewer, editor, and the myriad suggestions available online, there are a few golden rules about how to respond:

  • After you have calmed down a little, it is essential that you remain polite throughout the process. Irrespective of how stupid, unfair, mean-spirited, or just plain lazy the reviewers might appear to you, do not stoop to their level and fire back with defensive, snarky comments. Neither must you ever blame the editor for even the worst types of reviews, because you will do yourself no favours at all by offending the main person who will decide your manuscript’s fate.

  • If the decision requires substantive changes, then it is often a good idea to summarise in a paragraph or two (or using point form) the major ways you have listened to your reviewersand improved your manuscript. You can place this brief summary just before your point-by-point responses, or in a separate ‘letter’ to the editor as per specific journal guidelines.
  • Make the editor’s job as easy as possible. By this I mean that you should address each reviewer’s critique or suggestion in order, whether that be the order in which you received them, or in grouped thematically if several reviewers highlight the same issues. I recommend copying the entire set of comments into a separate document, and then culling them to their bare-bones, basic message; there is no need to repeat every single word the reviewers wrote. After the cull, address each point immediately after it appears, differentiating the reviewer’s comment and your response by font (e.g., italicised comments, normal-font response), colour (but this not recommended for colour-blind scientists like me), or by a leading ‘RESPONSE:’ or something similar in each response. As an editor, I want to be able to understand the essence of the reviewer’s issue at a glance, and then concentrate on your concise, yet comprehensive response to it.
  • Unless the reviewers recommend only superficial or minor changes, do not automatically do everything they suggest needs to be done. Reviewers are not omniscient, so they will often suggest inappropriate things, or request unreasonable new analyses or experiments. If you can defend your approach, or clearly identify why a particular suggestion is unwarranted, then by all means, do so. However, do not use this advice as an excuse to be lazy; if you cannot honestly demonstrate why the reviewer’s suggestion is inferior or unsupported, then just follow the recommendation.
  • For every remaining critique or suggestion, demonstrate to the editor that you have changed at least something in the manuscript, and identify where the change now resides (either by new line numbers or some other navigational pointer). If you are required to rephrase important parts of the text, you can simply copy the revised sentence, paragraph, or (brief) section into the response letter to show the editor what a well-behaved and conscientious scientist you are. On the other hand, if a particular comment requires little change (e.g., adding a reference, re-wording a sentence, changing terminology, et cetera), you can probably get away with something like ‘we have now made this change’, or even ‘done’.
  • There are no page limits on response letters, so feel free to add as much detail as is necessary without fatiguing the editor. It is a balancing act to be sure — insufficient detail or failing to respond to a particular concern will result in either another round of reviews or an outright rejection, whereas too much verbiage can bore the editor and distract her from the important business of accepting your manuscript. It is not that rare to have response letters that exceed the length of the manuscript itself, especially for the magazine-style, high-impact journals.
  • This advice differs from that of others, but as an editor I am not typically overjoyed by reading copious ‘thank you’ statements or gratuitous repetition of the reviewer’s compliments to the authors. Instead, stick to addressing the main critiques and do not ingratiate yourself.

In summary, the overall impression that the editors and reviewers must have after reading your revision and response letter is that you have taken their advice seriously and made a substantial effort to accommodate their expert suggestions into the revised version. If they experience any other emotion than this, chances are that your manuscript will be rejected.

CJA Bradshaw


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3 responses

26 08 2017
When to appeal a rejection | ConservationBytes.com

[…] should only be used when there is a clear pathway for reconciliation that typically rests on the shoulders of an awful or obviously biased review with personal […]

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6 07 2017
Responding to reviewers, by ConservationBytes.com | The Waterthrush Blog

[…] via How to respond to reviewers — ConservationBytes.com […]

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1 07 2017
Stuart Hurlbert

These are very good suggestions, and procedures I have employed over decades, especially with review articles that are highly critical of some subset of the literature and thus “controversial”.

I would suggest, however, that the author first compile into a single document the ENTIRETY of all the reviewers’ comments and then insert responses to those requiring such. And those should include not only responses to suggested changes but also correction of any factual errors reviewers’ make in passing. I usually have put my responses in bold blue, so they stand out in two ways from the regular black font of the reviews. I use CHANGE MADE: to label my comments describing how my ms has been modified. As Cory indicates, the total amount of verbiage this approach results in can easily well exceed the length of the ms under consideration, especially if a sympathetic editor wants you to respond to new criticisms of your revised ms.

There are two reasons for this approach. First, if it is necessary to submit your ms to a new journal, you can submit to that, the complete set of earlier reviews and your rebuttals of unwarranted criticisms or suggestions, including your correspondence with the editor. Don’t ask the new editor to trust that you have not omitted any serious criticism.

This approach require self-confidence and assumes that first rejection was due primarily to technical errors or lack of understanding on the part of reviewers and/or the editor, not to more subjective matters, e.g. the topic is “unimportant,” “not interesting,” etc..

Editors appreciate this extra pile of verbiage in my experience, just the way the justices of a supreme court want to see the full record of a case that was earlier decided by a lower level court. It saves everyone time. One of my more cited publications is “Spatial distribution of the montane unicorn.” After it was rejected by two journals, I sent it by airmail to Oikos along along with all prior correspondence. Within three weeks I got a postcard (this was the days of snailmail) from the Oikos editor saying something to the effect, “We have reviewed your ms and correspondence with bemusement, and hereby accept your ms without further review.”

A second benefit of this approach lies in its educational value for other reviewers and the scientific community generally, especially when substantive issues are at the core of disagreements. Many journals now send each reviewer of a ms copies of all reviewers’ comments. We all are now aware of how radically different opinion’s can be. On many basic matters of statistics, most scientists and no small number of statisticians are poorly informed; improvement is hindered by the large numbers of errors and bad advice given in many widely used statistics books. If such errors are in a ms and are overlooked by two reviewers, a third better informed reviewer can not only help the authors but also contribute substantively to the understanding of the other reviewers (who most likely are serving as reviewers for other mss).

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