How to survive journal peer review

Your manuscript has been sent for review and returned to you. Unless you are one of the lucky few it may be returned with one of the following responses from the editor:-

1. Rejection, do not resubmit.
2. Declined for now, future acceptance possible, major edits needed on the manuscript.
3. Declined for now, future acceptance very likely, minor edits need to be made on the manuscript.

The quality of a manuscript can be greatly enhanced through revision in the light of reviewers’ comments. But how do you respond to reviewers’ comments in a way that fully opens up the possibility of having your manuscript accepted on re-submission?

With careful consideration and appropriate responses, you will be able to turn this into an opportunity to show your commitment to academic discourse and your area of research.

Writing your response letter to the editor
Your responses to the peer review should be summarised in a covering letter with your re-submission. It gives the editor an important first impression of your response. In much the same way as the cover letter that accompanied your original manuscript submission, you should open with an outline of your work and go on to summarise your responses to the reviewers’ comments. This is the opportunity to show what you have done to improve your manuscript and answer the reviewers’ criticisms.

How to respond to reviewers’ comments
Your responses will need to convince the editor that all of the reviewers’ concerns have been addressed appropriately. Whether it is outlining further work on your manuscript or giving polite and robust rebuttals. The first type of response is easier to outline; the second is much harder.

It is good to start positively with something  about all comments being welcomed, and then focus on the ones that have particularly helped you to further refine your work. You should detail point-by-point responses to the reviewer’s questions and criticisms. Firstly, list the peer responses and then show what you have done to address them. Be polite and courteous as your goal is to convince both editors and peer reviewers that your manuscript should be published.

Now for the hard part, what about the comments where you think that the peer reviewers are wrong? Perhaps they have missed something and that is why they are asking about it in their comments. Or maybe they are not an expert in all aspects of the research in your manuscript? Maybe they have misinterpreted your results or maybe they have not fully understood your message, hence why they are questioning it. The way you respond to these points will illustrate to the editor how your work will stand up to criticism in your area of research. So, it is best to do so politely. Here are some one line examples from the American Journals Experts‘ blog which firstly show how you may feel like responding and secondly the better advised response:-

What you want to say What you should say
You just didn’t understand what we wrote!  

Several statements that we made were more ambiguous than intended, and we have adjusted to the text to be clearer.

 

No one knows the answer to that question.  

This is a valid question, and we are actively pursuing the answer in our lab. OR This is a valid and important question, and we are curious what the results would be. However, we are unaware of any studies that provide the answer.

 

That experiment would take forever!  

The suggested experiment is interesting and would provide additional information about…, but we feel that it falls outside the scope of this study.

 

We’re not saying we proved anything –

that’s just our hypothesis!

 

 

 

We agree that this explanation is speculative at this time, and we have edited the text to state that our conclusion is only suggested by our results.

 Note: you will need to make some changes to the text to further emphasize that you were stating a hypothesis, even if you felt it was obvious before.

 

You didn’t even read what we wrote!

 

 

 

We did not intend to indicate [insert mistaken assertion by reviewer here], and we have therefore altered the text to specify that [insert correct conclusion here].

 Note: As before, you’ll have to change some wording.

 

 

You are being so picky about grammar or formatting!

 

 

We apologize for this error, and we have corrected the text as suggested.

 

 

 

My English writing skills are better than yours; why are you complaining about my typos?

 

Our manuscript has been reviewed by a colleague and revised to improve readability.

Summary
There is still general consensus in the academic community that journal manuscripts are only published following revisions as advised by peer reviewers. In one of the largest peer review surveys carried out in 2009 on 4,000 authors and reviewers 91% researchers said that they felt their work was improved by the peer review process. So, while it may be painful to receive criticisms of your work, do try to view revisions of your manuscript as a refining process.

References

You can’t always say what you want
Final hurdle, persuasive responses to peer review
Top 10 Tips for Responding to Reviewer and Editor Comments
Sense About Science PDF guide

Diana Hayes
A key part of the founding team, Diana is achievement-oriented, forward-thinking and strategic in creating a high-yielding network of interested academics, universities and related associations. Her research and content have created genuine engagement amongst both candidates and employers resulting in a network of 250,000 academics. Diana’s experience is in sales, marketing, event management and business development.

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