My first attempt at publishing a paper was a breeze. A collaborator was asked to contribute to a special issue and offered me the opportunity to lead the paper. I was PhD student at the time, and spent two months visiting her lab overseas and writing. By the end of my visit, I’d carved out a draft that I left behind for comments. After a bunch of emails and several rounds of revisions over the next month, we were ready to submit.
A few weeks later we had a small set of reviewer comments returned to us by the editor, which constituted a morning’s work. Within a couple of months of submission, our paper was published. It was a dream! I loved interacting with my co-authors, the editor and very much appreciated the few comments the reviewers provided. I couldn’t understand all the fuss about publishing and peer review. It was just so easy!
And then came reality. My next paper was a nightmare. It was also built upon email, but rather than spanning the friendly separation of my collaborators in the USA, email was bridging the gulf of a fractured relationship with my ex PhD supervisor. There were tense negotiations about our target journal, our main results and co-authorship. Weeks stretched to months and then years. The reviewers had vastly different ideas about our data and our interpretation. I bumbled through, wondering where my knack for publishing had gone.
In both cases, I was left with very little idea of how to respond to reviewer comments. In the first case I had very few comments to address and in the second I had no one to teach me. Indeed, it was only many years later when a kindly editor provided me with feedback about the tone and style of my responses that I got an idea of what to do, and what not to do. Although my response to reviewers’ comments was passable, he generously took the time to email me and make general suggestions about how to communicate better with the editor and with potential subsequent reviewers.
So what’s the trick? Well there isn’t one trick but there’s certainly some easy to avoid landmines:
1 Don’t be hasty. Read the comments and then put them aside for a week to percolate (or more accurately diffuse) so that you don’t strike back rashly.
2 Don’t be confused about what your paper says. It can be easy, especially at first, to think you are obliged to implement every suggestion the reviewers make. This will only lead to a Frankenstein paper – a cobbled together mess of spare parts that is barely readable and says nothing. Unfortunately, I speak from experience here of creating a truly frightful and unreadable manuscript. At the end of the day your paper has your name on it and you have to agree with your message. Think about why a reviewer makes a suggestion and what their motivation might be and then evaluate for yourself if it contributes to your paper or not. If you don’t agree or don’t think it adds value to your paper, write back with a measured rebuttal and reference any relevant literature.
3 Don’t get bogged down. It can be overwhelming when you receive a set of negative or mixed reviews that amount to a ream of A4 paper. Where to start? It’s a good idea to view the reviews holistically, rather than looking at Reviewer 1, then 2 and finally 3 sequentially. Are there any common themes? Can you break the major comments into common themes and address these before fiddling around with the little stuff? When reviews are messy it can be easier to start with planning out major improvements and directions to your paper based on a few of the reviewer’s concerns, heading off in this direction and then mapping these improvements back onto the reviewer comments. That is, rather than seeing it as a linear process of Reviewer Comments – Revisions – Response, the process can be a little more circular, Reviewer Comments – Brilliant Ideas – Revisions – Reviewer Comments – Response.
5 Don’t say you’ve done something if you haven’t. It seems ridiculous that I have to explicitly mention this, but so often authors sneakily say that they have implemented a suggestion but have simply ignored it. Don’t be that author. Please. Just don’t.
4 Don’t return a mess*. When you submit a revised version of your paper return clear information, including a marked up document (e.g. with track changes on), a fully revised document and thorough response to reviewer comments. In your response file, make sure that the reviewer comments are easily distinguishable from your responses (use indentations, font or italics), or alternatively put it all in a table with reviewer comments in the left hand side column and your response in the right. Make sure you include line numbers for important additions and revisions, and pull out relevant sentences to show clearly what you have done. This will make it easy for the editor to see that you have given the comments due consideration, without having to flick back and forth between 50 documents.
5 Don’t ignore your tone. Sometimes being succinct comes off sounding lazy and sometimes being deferential sounds obsequious. Try to be respectful and clear without being annoying. Unfortunately, again I speak from early, cringe-worthy experiences of being annoying.
6 Don’t forget your cover letter*. A cover letter is a really important way for you to communicate with the editor and it represents a clear way for you to ‘sell’ your improved manuscript. Outline two or three really important changes that you have made and re-iterate why your paper will be of interest to the journal’s readership.
7 Never be afraid to walk away. Peer review is a strange, petulant and unpredictable beast, a veritable hippopotamus of the academic landscape. Sometimes a beige paper lands stellar reviews and an iridescent masterpiece comes back drawn and quartered. Sometimes reviewers or editors are nasty. There is always another journal that will provide a robust and well written paper with a welcome home, so don’t feel like one set of disappointing reviews is the end of the road. Be bold, walk away and find that place that lets your paper shine rainbows.
* Examples of response to reviewer files and cover letters are availalbe on https://sophieclewis.com/news/