7 tips for dealing with reviewer comments
By Stephen Gilliver
1. Use the reviewer comments even if your paper is rejected
Your paper getting sent out for review is a cause for celebration. Not only because it might get accepted for publication, but also because if it is rejected you should at least get some feedback from the reviewers. (If the reviewers’ comments are not included in the rejection letter from the journal editor you should request them.) Check through the reviewer comments carefully for things you can do to improve your paper before you send it to the next journal. I once had a paper rejected by one journal, improved it with the help of the reviewer comments, submitted it to a journal with a higher impact factor, and got it accepted there. Result!
2. Be polite – but not over-polite
It is important to address the reviewers in a polite manner, even if you totally disagree with their comments. However, you should not be over-polite. I once edited a point-by-point response to a set of reviewer comments in which the author prefaced and ended each individual response with an expression of gratitude. Something like this:
Thank you very much for your excellent comment. [Response to specific comment] Thank you very much again.
This excessive politeness might give the impression that the author is trying to charm the reviewer, to get the paper accepted by being polite rather than by addressing what the reviewers consider to be its flaws.
3. Don’t feel obliged to accept everything the reviewer says
Responding to reviewer comments is a balance between pleasing the reviewer and having the paper you want. If you accept all of the reviewer comments and recommended changes you may increase your chances of publication, but the paper will be how the reviewers want it and not necessarily how you would like it to be. If you strongly disagree with something a reviewer says you should say so, explaining courteously and with good reasoning why (flat rejection of a comment will not be well received). As a peer reviewer I always respected authors who argued cogently for their point of view. And remember, accepting all of the reviewers’ comments/changes does not guarantee that your paper will be accepted. I am writing from experience here.
4. What to do when two reviewers ask for opposite things
Okay, so you get the reviewer comments back from the editor and Reviewer 1 feels that the Introduction lacks detail. Reviewer 2 on the other hand thinks it is too long. What to do? In such instances it is best to ask the editor for advice. After all, it is he/she who has the final say as to whether or not your paper is accepted. You can then refer to the advice you received from the editor when writing your responses to the conflicting reviewer comments. (Note: If the editor bothers to read through the reviewer comments carefully they may flag the problem in the decision letter.)
5. Make sure you address everything
Sometimes reviewers will raise several different points in a single comment. In such instances it is easy to miss something important (or that the reviewer considers important). Before you submit your responses to the reviewer comments make sure you have addressed E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G! Nothing annoyed me more as a peer reviewer than authors not responding to my comments. In such cases I would merely repeat the same comment during the next round of review, maybe with an expression of my dissatisfaction.
6. Dealing with comments you don’t understand
Sometimes peer reviewers will make comments that you don’t understand; on other occasions it may be unclear whether they are just commenting on something or want you to make changes. When this happens I would advocate a policy of openness. Explain to the reviewer that you don’t understand what they mean, or what they are asking you to do. At the same time, it is worth writing responses based on what you suspect the reviewer may be getting at:
I am afraid that I am unclear as to the point you are making. If you are saying that the sample was too small, I would respond that [...]. If instead you feel that the outcome measure was flawed, I would argue that […].
7. Engage the editor as an adjudicator
You and a reviewer are unable to agree on a particular point. The reviewer repeatedly requests a specific change and you reiterate your opposition to it. After several rounds of review, agreement is no nearer. In such circumstances it is advisable to raise the issue directly with the editor. Present your argument to them as convincingly as you can and let them decide what should be done. There is no guarantee that you will get the outcome you hope for, but at least you will no longer be bashing your head against a brick wall.
And that wraps up the 7 tips for dealing with reviewer comments. Read more Early Career hints, tips and news at www.ecr2star.org and don't forget to like us at www.facebook.com/ECR2STAR. If you wish to get involved or are interested in contributing to ECR2TAR please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Stephen Gilliver: Stephen is the Science Editor at the Center for Primary Health Care Research, Malmö, Sweden and the Co-Editor of Medical Writing (the journal of the European Medical Writers Association). He previously served as a peer reviewer for several dermatology journals. You can contact Stephen here