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How to Respond to Reviewer Comments

As PhD students, you can hear a lot about a key activity of your research: publishing in journals. Writing up your research into succinct pieces that can be read and viewed by the wider academic world is key to building your profile and giving you experience of writing academically long before your thesis is due. But there are many little intricacies of the journal publishing process that you need to navigate in order to get your work published. One element is writing the response letter to your reviewers. Today, blog editor Ellie King gives us the how to…

We often talk about the process of submitting to an academic journal. But what happens after that submission? Well, your work will usually go to the journal administrator, who will do a broad check to see that your work actually fits in with the journal. Then, it goes off to reviewers – usually two or three – who go through your work and pick it apart. They’ll be judging it on a set of criteria: is the research relevant and of enough interest to warrant publication? Are the methods of research and the conclusions drawn sound? Are there any elements missing that the authors need to expand on?

After judging your paper against these criteria, reviewers will write up their comments, some general and some more specific (i.e., there’s a typo on page 15) and will make a recommendation to the editor. This recommendation can be one of a number of outcomes:

  • Accept for publication
  • Requires minor revisions (usually grammatical errors)
  • Requires major revisions
  • Suggest major editing and a resubmission
  • Rejection

Now, I don’t want to give you too many stats on what papers get accepted, rejected, and everything in between, because it can very much be a case-by-case basis. But for me, the two papers that I’ve submitted to journals both returned with major revisions.

These ‘outcomes’ scared me when I first heard them, but in reality, you’ll get your paper back with a load of comments. Sometimes these can be nit-pickety but in my experience they’ve always been really constructive and have helped me improve my work massively.

Anyway, fast forward to having gone through the comments and made edits on your paper. These can be as small as correcting the typos that you could have sworn weren’t there and only popped up once you’d hit submit, to rewriting whole sections of your work and adding new ones. You’re ready to resubmit. With one extra task ahead of you: writing a response letter to the reviewer comments you’ve got.

You’ll have usually highlighted in your manuscript where changes have been made. But another requirement is to write a document going through each reviewer comment and detailing how you’ve responded to it. I’ve found there’s an art to this, as guided by my supervisors, so here is my advice.

Image credit: cottonbro

Write a general letter

The document will start in letter format which should detail your thanks for the comments and the opportunity to build on your work. You can also cover the overall changes you’ve made in this general letter in response to the general tone of the reviewer comments. You also need to note where you’ve highlighted changes in the text.

For example, my last paper received the comments that I was overselling the use of my method I had researched and devised. In response I said that overall things had been toned down and tightened up to reflect the key elements of the research.

I have included the reviewer comments immediately after this letter and responded to them individually, indicating exactly how we have addressed each of the reviewers’ points and describing the changes we have made. The revisions have been approved by all four authors and I have coordinated this as the corresponding author. The changes have been highlighted in the paper as you requested.

Reviewer comments have been closely considered, which we feel has improved the paper greatly in clarifying its benefit to museum practice at this theoretical stage. These have been clarified in the main text at several points and a summary of these clarifications are provided below.

Address Specific Issues

There may have been an issue with the supplementary issue you provided or how you have done your referencing. Again, the general letter is a good place to acknowledge that you’ve made these changes.

Concerns were raised about the lack of supplementary information submitted with the manuscript. This has now been rectified and the supplementary information includes the staff survey questions (note, these are not formatted as the survey was produced online); the visitor survey; and the staff interview questions. References to appendices have also been removed.

Reply to Each Comment in Turn

After your general letter, copy each reviewer comment into the document and reply to it specifically. I usually put the reviewer comments in bold and then my answers underneath. You don’t have to respond to every single comment, especially if they are of the ‘typo on page 15’ type. These responses will be a mixture of providing further clarity on your research approach and highlighting what changes you’ve made in the text. If you’re making direct defences of your research, make sure what you say is also said in the text.

Reviewer #2: The use of only one museum for the visitor survey is questionable. Responses from natural history museums would be different than for art galleries, for example.

This has been addressed with the focus shifting to the visitor survey being an exploratory example of how the model and this method of visitor profiling can be applied in a museum setting. It is explicitly acknowledged that different results would be produced for different types of institutions.

Get the Tone Right

It’s important to strike a good balance between thanking the reviewers for their comments which have improved your work and looking like you have no idea what you’re doing without their help. Be sincere with thanking them for their insightful comments, but don’t go overboard. Equally, do not feel the need to rectify everything they criticise. If you have good enough reasons for your research methods and conclusions, don’t bend over to pleasing the reviewers, and it’s perfectly okay to stand up to your point. They may be criticising it because it wasn’t explained as clearly, so an edit in this direction is really helpful. I’ve found the phrase ‘we apologise for the lack of clarity over this point’ followed by a defence of your approach is particularly useful in appeasing reviewers whilst politely saying ‘no, you’re wrong.’

Acknowledge their praise

It’s important not to just focus on the criticisms they make. Reviewers will usually have to make general comments on how the paper is written and its subject matter, and this will often include elements of praise. Make sure you acknowledge this: it’ll get them more on your side.

With this letter, you’ll submit your revised manuscript back to the reviewers. They’ll consider your responses and edits and come back to you hopefully with a decision. It may be an acceptance, it may require some other minor revisions (those pesky typos!)

But I’ve found it to be the case that if you’ve been asked for major revisions, the reviewers see the potential in your work. It obviously needs tweaking and some edits here and there, but they are clearly in a position where they want to publish you. It’s unlikely that after major revisions you’ll then get a rejection, unless you’ve majorly ignored everything they’ve said. Reviewers are busy academics who are unpaid for their time spent reviewing: they will not put the energy and effort in writing constructive comments if they didn’t think your research had the potential to be published. You may have to go through another round of revisions, and you may have the unfortunate situation of a particularly harsh reviewer who never seems to be pleased, but generally it’s going in the right direction.