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Responding to paper review comments

Posted 11/29/2023

My student Steve had been checking every day on the review status of his first academic paper. When the decision e-mail finally came, he opened it with excitement but was shocked to read a long list of concerns about his precious manuscript. He stayed up late that night writing lengthy arguments rebutting each review comment. While his instincts were perhaps understandable, the effort did nothing to get his manuscript closer to acceptance. When he had a chance to cool off, we talked and he came to appreciate that the following approach is much more effective than going to battle with the reviewers.

There are three major steps in preparing a response to paper reviews: perform a high-level review to make major scoping decisions, develop detailed responses, and then get coauthor feedback to finalize the manuscript. This process will help you stay efficient and organized, coordinate effectively with your coauthors, and ultimately produce an improved manuscript.

High-level review and scoping decisions 

For the initial emotional read of your decision e-mail, resist the urge to take notes or prepare responses. You can forward the e-mail to your coauthors for their information and general reactions, but don’t ask for detailed feedback. Put down the comments for a few days to let your emotions dissipate. When you return, take an inventory of comments and potential requirements to respond. Make a document with a numbered list of all comments, and brainstorm what you might do in response to each. Ask your coauthors for help on particular comments if they led the relevant part of the work or if you are unsure how to proceed. Address your comments to your coauthors, and use a shared document so all authors can contribute. See an example here. Your focus at this stage is to develop a plan, so don’t worry about rebuttals or manuscript edits. Key considerations at this point are:

  • Is further analysis needed?

  • Do any parts of the manuscript need to be restructured?

  • Do the reviewers have serious objections to major methodological choices or conclusions?

  • Are there any issues that more than one reviewer raised?

The above items require careful planning. There will also be comments about small issues of clarification—these are usually straightforward and don’t need much consideration now. Keep in mind that reviewer concerns about a conclusion can be addressed by providing more evidence for the original conclusion, or by adjusting the conclusion. Authors sometimes draw overly broad conclusions that don’t stand up to scrutiny, and more limited assertions may align better with the results while still leaving a valuable manuscript. Focus throughout this stage on how the paper can be revised to address the major comments, hopefully with a reasonable level of effort.

Once you draft your notes, circulate them to your coauthors and meet to discuss key decisions and the path forward. Ask your coauthors how much revision they think is needed: this high-level view can vary from person to person, and may influence decisions about the scope of edits. Focus the group discussion on the tricky and major comments, with the goal of deciding how to proceed, or determining what extra results are needed to make a decision. Getting alignment on the plan at this stage will ease the development of detailed responses.

You may now be facing significant work to revise the paper. Step back and ask yourself, will the changes ultimately improve the work? Envisioning an improved manuscript can motivate you to keep going. 

Detailed responses 

Once you have your big-picture plan and additional results, prepare your responses to the reviewers. I prefer to use a Latex document for this, so it’s easy to copy and paste between it and the manuscript, but editing the previously shared document can also work. Here is a template and an example set of final responses, to illustrate.

Some things to keep in mind at this stage.

  • Your primary objective is to improve your manuscript, not to convince the reviewer of your perspective. Your default response to a comment should be to change something in the manuscript rather than argue about the issue in the response document. You don’t have to fully agree with the reviewer, but take their feedback seriously and try to use it to improve your work. Use distinct formatting for the reviewer comments, your responses, and the manuscript revisions, so the reader can quickly identify each.    

  • Be specific in your responses, and indicate in the first sentence or two whether you agree with the comment and have generally adopted their suggestion (or not). Then include pointers to specific changes in the manuscript, such as “we added xxxx to Figure 4 to illustrate…,” or “on line 410 we added the following passage: xxxx.” Your goal is for the editor and reviewer to quickly understand what you changed in the paper and evaluate whether it addresses their comment.

  • Consider putting a general note at the beginning of the document, in addition to the point-by-point responses. This can start the document with a positive tone and help the reviewers understand your big-picture approach to improvements. You can point out high-level changes you made, or note a general strategy you took to address multiple comments on a related theme. Then, the reviewers will have context for the detailed point-by-point responses.

  • Be humble and polite in your tone, even if you disagree with the reviewer. If the reviewer misunderstood your message, future readers probably will also, so this is your chance to clarify. And bickering or dismissive comments will likely trigger more reviewer comments and work for you. Phrases like “the reviewer misunderstands” or “this comment is incorrect” are not productive.

  • You are writing to both the reviewer and the journal editor. Ideally, the reviewer will approve of your responses and the revised manuscript. But if they are still unsatisfied, the editor may step in and decide who is right. If you have been thoughtful and clear with your response, and the reviewer is stubborn or rambling, there is a good chance that the editor will judge your response favorably and move on to accept the paper. Remember this to avoid slipping into personal debates with the reviewer.

My example document has an appreciative tone, opens with general context, is clear with each response, and focuses on changes to the paper rather than extended discussions or arguments. This approach is effective in avoiding multiple rounds of back-and-forth review comments. 

Coauthor approval and finalized manuscript

Once your detailed responses are prepared, get your coauthors’ feedback and approval, and finalize the manuscript changes. Coauthor reviews provide a valuable perspective on the detailed responses and revisions. Independent feedback will help you as the primary author in evaluating whether your tone is appropriate and whether your responses are clear and sufficiently detailed. The can provide invaluable editing assistance. You may also need some discussion about whether the responses fully address the issues raised by reviewers, though hopefully most of that debate will occur earlier in the high-level planning rather than at the final stages. Additionally, the coauthors must approve the revised manuscript before you resubmit it. In multi-authored papers, some authors may not actively engage in the revision process. Do your best to get feedback, and be certain to get feedback from your advisor or a senior mentor. But if a minor coauthor is not responding and you are ready to resubmit, send a message saying “Here is my final draft of the manuscript and responses. I would really appreciate your feedback by next Friday, or let me know if you need a little more time than that. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’ll assume you are okay with the documents as-is, and will resubmit.” You can also appeal to the journal’s resubmission deadline to spur action.

When Steve resubmitted his revised manuscript and response, he resumed anxiously checking for status updates. Because he responded using the above process, the reviewers quickly saw that the manuscript was improved and addressed the previous concerns. He heard back soon after with a much more pleasant e-mail with news that his paper had been accepted.



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