Writing a journal article

Revising a paper after review

When you first write your paper, of course you hope for it to be accepted. But reality is that many papers are rejected, and those of those that are not, many require revisions, often major. As an example, leading international journals in applied ecology now reject 80% of papers – if you look at leading journals like Nature, the percentage of rejections is much higher still. Given this situation, being asked to submit a revised version, even if the revisions are major, is often a ‘success’. How can you make sure that when you are asked to submit a revised version, you maximize the chances of your revised paper being accepted?

The first general rule is that you take the criticisms of all reviewers seriously. As the author, it’s your job to communicate your ideas clearly. Even in cases where the criticism you received seems unjustified, ask yourself “What can I do better so that this same reviewer will be more likely to buy into my argument next time around?” Even if you are completely satisfied that your argument holds, ask yourself if you can do a better job of communicating it clearly.

You then need to go through the comments by the editor and all reviewers one by one, and address every single one of them. Broadly speaking, you have three options for how to respond to a particular criticism:

  1. When, upon reflection, you agree with the reviewer: You implement a change that does what the reviewer asked for. For example, she may have asked for additional explanation, an additional reference, or the complete re-write of a section, including a different conclusion.
  2. When, despite reflection, you disagree with the reviewer: You might not want to implement some particular suggestions, especially if they relate to subjective matters, which you simply feel differently about. (For minor suggestions, I suggest just do as the reviewers suggest, because there’s nothing to lose; but if you truly disagree, just implementing the suggestions is not a satisfactory solution.) Still, in this case, you can often communicate more clearly what your position on the issue is. So re-write your text in a way that might convince the reviewer of your position, lends more weight to your argument, or is simply easier to follow. In this case, you’re still making the same argument as before, but you explain it more clearly.
  3. When, despite reflection, you think a reviewer is simply wrong: In this case, you change nothing in the text, but you explain in your cover letter to editor why you did not make the change.

As a general rule of thumb, if you want your paper to be accepted, and especially if it goes back to the same reviewers, your response to most criticisms needs to be type 1, followed by type 2 – only rarely will you get away with response type 3 above.

Your revision ultimately consists of the changed manuscript, as well as a detailed letter outlining point by point your responses to the reviewers. Put yourself in the position of the editor: she wants to understand as easily as possible what you changed or did not change, and why. Making this job as easy as possible for the editor is what your response letter needs to do.

The following format works well:

  • An introductory cover note, which follows a logic like this:
    • Thank you for your decision letter from xyz.
    • We greatly appreciate the constructive comments.
    • We have now addressed these comments, and this has strengthened the paper.
    • On the following pages, we outline point by point responses to the comments by the reviewers (and the associate editor, if applicable).
    • We hope our revised version will be received favourably and look forward to hearing from you in the near future.
  • On the following pages, detailed point by point responses, to each of the comments, in a format as follows:
    • Paste in a given reviewer’s comment in italics
    • Then explain how you have addressed it, e.g.:
      • The authors assert that biodiversity is declining in their study area, but they do not substantiate this claim. At the very least, this statement requires a reference.”
        Response: We appreciate this concern and have now added a reference (Smith et al. XXX; see page 4 of the revised manuscript)
      • “The methods used on page 6 are unclear. Which type of regression model was used?”
        Response: In the first paragraph of page 6 of the original manuscript, we had actually specified that we used generalized linear models. Arguably, our statement was hidden among other information, which is why the reviewer may have missed it. We have now moved our statement to a more prominent position at the beginning of the section on ‘Data analysis’ (page 5 of the revised manuscript). This should make it more obvious which methods we used.

Don’t be surprised that response letters sometimes end up very long! Still, it is better to explain too carefully what you have changed and why, than not carefully enough. The objective of a response letter is to show the editor that you are taking the review process seriously, and that you have put in a very genuine effort to address the comments, including the difficult ones. It’s a good idea to approach this process from a position of intellectual humility, while also making sure that you stay true to your core argument.

Also see other entries under THE PROCESS OF PUBLISHING.

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