You got a revise-and-resubmit request from a journal – congratulations! What now? Here are step by step suggestions to maximize the probability of converting that R&R into a publication and minimize the number of revision rounds.
Preparing to write the reply
- Copy-paste the reviewer comments into Word, Latex, or whatever you write in. Format the comments to distinguish them from the reply you will write (e.g. make the comments italic or bold). If the editor provided specific comments, do this with his/her comments as well.
- Write what you’re going to do in response to each comment following the comment and make a to-do list based on that. Now you’ve got a super-rough draft of the reply!
Deciding how/if to address a comment
- Start with the assumption that each comment is valid: the reviewer is innocent until proven guilty! In my experience as both author and reviewer, it’s not uncommon for authors to glance over a comment and dismissively conclude that a reviewer has misunderstood something about the paper. Consider the possibility that it is you who has misunderstood the comment and re-read it carefully. In general, carefully re-read each comment in the beginning, middle, and end of the revision process to make sure you haven’t misunderstood the point. If, after carefully considering a comment, you continue to think that it reflects a misunderstanding of the paper, try to figure out why the reviewer misunderstood your paper. Sure, reviewers can be careless, but just as often authors might think something in the paper is clear when it is not. In this case, carefully edit the part of the paper that may have confused the reviewer and make your reply to the comment something along the lines of “We apologize for the confusion. In fact, [EXPLAIN]. We have now revised lines/sections/pages X-Y to make this clearer.” Sometimes this is as simple as moving something from a footnote in the back of the paper to earlier in the paper or adding a footnote about something in the supplementary materials.
- Remember that the editor is the one ultimately in charge. If an editor tells you not to address a particular comment, don’t address it. If an editor highlights a comment as specifically important, pay particular attention to it. If an editor has not said anything about a particular comment, assume that they want you to address it.
- Address every comment unless it is impossible or the editor told you not to do it. Assume that the reviewers are acting in good faith and giving you feedback to improve your paper. Note that “addressing” a comment does not always mean you do exactly what the comment says. For example, if a reviewer says that “The analysis sample should be limited to X” and you think there are good objective reasons to keep your current sample, you can address the comment by showing results with sample X in the reply to the reviewer and clearly explaining why you believe it’s not the best sample to focus on.
- Err on the side of comprehensiveness. There are no page limits when it comes to reviewer replies (this is not an invitation to overwhelm the reviewers by making the reply unnecessarily long though!), and if you decide that some exercise suggested by the reviewers isn’t important enough for the manuscript, go ahead and include the results of the exercise in the reply. A common phrase in my replies has been “To keep the length of the manuscript manageable, we have decided to not include this exercise in the paper.” but it always follows a reply where the results are shown to the reviewers!
- Sometimes reviewer and editor requests can be burdensome, e.g., if you’re asked to run another experiment or collect more data. Ultimately, it’s your paper and your career, so you decide where the limits are, but keep in mind that by choosing to not address a particular comment, you weakly increase the risk of rejection.
- If you’re in doubt about what a comment is asking you to do even after reading it carefully, ask a senior colleague to take a look.
You should not view the editor as someone you can email back and forth with whenever you want (they’re busy!), but there are times when it’s appropriate to send the editor an email before completing your revision
- When reasonable reviewer suggestions contradict each other, but the editor did not clarify which direction you should take.
- When a comment was highlighted as particularly important to address by the editor, but you don’t view it as feasible. Better to explain to the editor why you can’t do it and ask him or her up front if it’s a deal-breaker so you don’t spend time on all the other revisions only to be rejected.
- When the required revisions are substantial, the suggestions are vague, and you want to run your revision plan by the editor before executing it.
Finally, some specific suggestions on how to address reviewers
- Thank the reviewer at the beginning of your reply. They read your paper and provided comments!
- Start the reply to each reviewer by outlining the key changes you have made in the response to the editor and other reviewers. Also note any major changes you made during the revision that didn’t stem from reviewer comments (e.g., because you thought of other beneficial changes yourself). Don’t expect reviewers to read the other reports and your replies to them (though they often may do that). Outlining changes made in response to the editor and other reviewers provides insurance, among other things: if a reviewer dislikes a change, they are much less likely to go after you if the change was made in response to another reviewer’s suggestion.
- Make it easy for reviewers and the editor to see exactly what was changed. Aim to minimize the number of times the reviewer has to flip back and forth between your reply and the paper. Put copies of new tables/figures into the reply. Always note the page/line numbers that have changed. If the change is short (e.g., you added or revised a couple of sentences or added a new paragraph), paste the new language into the response document. (Don’t paste entire sections or multiple paragraphs that have been edited though.)
- If you decided that a comment is not feasible to address, provide an objective explanation as to why. Don’t just write something along the lines of “We decided it would be better to not implement this suggestion.” without an explanation.
- Avoid sounding defensive. For example, instead of writing “Although this issue was essentially addressed in Table 1, we have now added additional analysis to our supplementary materials”, write simply “We have now added additional analysis to our supplementary materials.”
- Be professional no matter what. In many cases, the reviewers know who you are, and you may be interacting with them for years to come (without knowing it!). The editor definitely knows who you are, and unprofessional behavior can cost you. Even if the reviewers are rude, do not stoop to their level.
- Try to make the responses as short as possible (but not shorter). This means editing them like you might a manuscript.
- Remind the editor that you’re open to alternative ways of implementing the suggestions. If something you did as part of the revision is only in the replies, note that you chose not to put it in the paper but also that you would be open to doing so should the editor think it desirable. If you cut something to stay within the page/word limit, note that you’d be open to bringing it back if the editor prefers you to cut something else. You don’t need to state this for literally every single change, but a broad statement to that extent in the editor reply can only help you.
I know this sounds like a lot, but once you’ve used this approach a few times in R&Rs, it gets easier. Good luck!