Monday, July 3, 2017

Academic Journal Publishing: How to Respond to Reviewers

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).
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.

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