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I submitted to Journal X but all I got was this lousy revision

Why being given a “revise” decision is a beginning, not an end…

© istockphoto.com/DNY59
© istockphoto.com/DNY59

You know the feeling all too well: you’ve spent months, if not years on your beloved manuscript. It’s the very best it can possibly be (even your supervisor says so!). Full of hope and the expectation of speedy publication, you submitted to journal X, waited seven weeks and … received a “major revision” decision. With a long, long list of “do this, delete that, rewrite all this…”, to boot. Why bother going any further? Might as well give up and either try another journal with a less draconian set of reviewers or maybe just ditch it completely, right? Wrong!

Try, try, try again…

Peer review is about more than just rubber stamping, let’s not forget. As well as serving as a guarantor of final quality and acting as “gatekeeper” for journals, a major function of peer review is to improve the quality of what is published. That’s why you should never consider your work as “finished” – there’s always some way you can improve, refine or simplify. Peer review is the ultimate expression of this process. Ultimately, it is worthwhile bearing in mind that you have benefitted from the undivided attention of two or more experts in your area – it makes sense to listen to what they have to say and to treat them respectfully when you respond.

Take a deep breath

But first, it probably makes sense to take a break and clear your head before you turn to the task of responding to the reviewers’ feedback. It’s not a bad idea to leave at least a day, possibly even a week or longer. (Just don’t wait too long and forget all about it – as publishers we have observed that this tends to be the second slowest phase in the lifecycle of the average article).

A blueprint for responding to review feedback

So once you’ve reconciled yourself to the task of responding to the referees’ feedback, how best to go about this? We have heard many editors comment on their preferred format, style and content for receiving responses to reviewers’ comments, but there tends to be general agreement on the following:

Authors should respond fully to each comment/issue raised by the reviewer(s). There’s no point in ignoring the two or three points you really dislike or don’t have an answer to as this will be painfully obvious. Furthermore, in your responses, try to avoid general statements such as “comment accepted” or “noted; changed” etc.  – you need to specify exactly what you’ve done.

In composing your response to the review, be methodological. One good technique is to create a table listing all the points made by the referees and then match each with your response signalling what you have done and what changes you’ve made. Include line numbers if you can – this will help the editor no end, and having a happy editor is no bad thing when you’re trying to get published, of course.

This could be your last chance to convince the editor that your manuscript is worth spending more time on, so you must be clear - the last thing you want is to leave your editor (or reviewers) guessing as to what you mean. It’s easy to lose yourself with your revised paper and your response to the comments, so, as with your original manuscript, it’s always wise to ask someone else to read your revised paper (and comments) to ensure you’re not going off piste, becoming unclear or dancing around the edges of courtesy.

If you’re unhappy with something the reviewers have said, don’t be afraid to disagree – just do so politely and “scientifically”. There is no point declaiming angrily “the reviewers are wrong” or the like: you must explain exactly where the misunderstanding has arisen and why you’re (perhaps) right. After all, we all make mistakes. If you find yourself about to write “the reviewer clearly does not understand…”, ask yourself: could this be because you’ve not explained the issue clearly enough? At the same time, if there is any confusion in the other direction and you’re unsure of what’s being asked of you, there’s no reason not to ask for clarification if needed.

When composing your response to the editor and reviewers, try to do so in such a fashion that makes it easy for the editor to pass on your comments verbatim to the reviewers. In doing so, remember to be courteous. Even if the feedback from the reviewers was less than kind, it’s good practice to remain polite and clinical (be the better person if necessary!). Incidentally, if you’re a reviewer reading this, then be sure to check out the advice in this post when providing feedback to your authors.

Above all, don’t ignore the advice and think you can just take your article elsewhere. There’s a better-than-average chance that the reviewers at the next journal will be the same. If they see your paper for the second time, having apparently ignored all their carefully-constructed advice, you’re not likely to get more than a swift “reject” decision this time round.

In conclusion

Hopefully the advice provided here will serve you well in your future dealings with revisions. Remember that you’ve spent a significant amount of time in drafting the original manuscript. A “revise” decision shows that the editor believes there’s something worthwhile in your article, so why risk that by ignoring the advice you’ve been given? In any case, good luck and remember that “revision” doesn’t mean the end, it’s a chance to get to an even better ending!

Further reading

Researcher Academy module on responding to reviewer comments

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