A guide to help you revise your paper and get the most out of the peer-review process
I’m an associate editor for a journal and have my own experience as a first-author and co-author on a number of papers. Here is my advice on how to revise a paper. It’s not guaranteed that this will get your paper accepted, but it will definitely smooth the process and will hopefully save you from further rounds of revision.
- Take a breath
Doing research and writing papers is hard. You spent months or even years labouring over this paper and now you get an unfavourable review. You may be raging against the reviewer who failed to get the point of your paper or you’re crushed by the amount of work required to revise your work. So, just take a breath. Let it sit for a day. You don’t have to start immediately. It’s much better to approach the revision systematically and with a calm mind. When you are ready, list all the reviewers’ comments. I usually create a task paper, i.e. I copy each reviewer comment and create checkboxes with the steps I need to take to address that comment.
2. Don’t rush, don’t dawdle
Academic publishing is not known for being a fast-paced industry. However, you can err on both sides with the time you’re taking to revise your manuscript. Don’t rush a revision, if you can’t do it justice. As an editor, I came across authors who submitted a revision within a day but did not address half of the comments. This is frustrating for the editor and if it is passed on also for the reviewers. It looks sloppy and is taking the editor and reviewers extra time. It’s also unlikely to pass. You should definitely take your time to thoroughly revise your paper and address all of the reviewers’ comments, even if it is just a few sentences justifying why you did not address a particular point. On the other hand, do not take too long to revise. If you wait too long, the content is no longer fresh in the reviewers’ minds and they will have to assess the paper fully again. This means that they might raise different points. If you take very long, it might be difficult to contact the original reviewers and the editor will have to assign new reviewers. The new reviewers will probably raise new points that mean more revisions for you. If you absolutely cannot revise the paper within a reasonable time due to any circumstances, let the editor know. You can also discuss a particular reviewer request that you think is unreasonable. For instance, if a reviewer asks for a whole new experiment or extensive analysis, ask the editor if they agree with this assessment and if the deadline for revision can be extended to carry this out.
3. Be polite
Most academic journals do not pay reviewers for their work. This means that busy academics review papers in their free time. That is time that they could spend writing their own papers, supervising students, socialising, or playing Mario Kart. Instead, they are lending their time and expertise to the improvement of your work. Journal editor usually select reviewers who are experts in the area of the paper and you should value the help of the reviewers. It doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the contribution of the reviewers in your response. The best way to do this is to not just copy and paste a stock sentence but to highlight one particular way a reviewer helped to improve your paper. For instance, you could write “We want to thank the reviewer for their time and effort. The reviewer’s comments helped us to clarify the description of our method, which, we think, significantly improved the manuscript.”
Being polite also extends to the response to the comments. If you disagree with a reviewers’ assessment, politely disagree. Try to acknowledge their point, but then highlight why you think that it is not a valid criticism. Mince your words. Picking a fight with a reviewer is a bad idea and not worth the effort. You can curse them all you want and complain about them to your colleagues, but do not put that in the reviewer response letter. If you feel like you’re being treated unfairly, contact the editor instead.
4. Craft your response letter
There is quite a bit of variation in how people write their response letter. Here is the style that I cobbled together from my supervisors and personal experience.
First, address their editor thanking them that they gave you a chance to revise the manuscript following peer review. Then, highlight some positive sentiments from the reviewers. This provides some background for the editor who might have forgotten about the paper in the meantime. It helps to refresh the editor’s mind with the most positive assessments. Then, list the major changes to the manuscript that you made. Here is an example:
5. Structure your response to the reviewers
I recently handled a manuscript in which the authors just listed the changes they had made to the manuscript. While this is technically fulfilling the requirements, it’s frustrating for the reviewers. The reviewers would have to piece together how the changes had addressed the comment. I suggest that you structure the response like this:
- Highlight the point raised by the reviewer. I would cite the point verbatim. If it is ambiguous, make that explicit and say “we interpret as …”
- Say how you addressed that point. This can be very short, e.g. “we added this information to Section X”, or it can be longer. You can even include results of additional analyses here. However, keep the response concise.
- List any changes to the manuscript. I often include the page and line number of any changes. If it is not too long, you can also copy the change. For instance, you could write “Page 8, Line 216: Now reads …”
I suggest to also highlight the changes in the manuscript. It’s a matter of personal opinion, but I don’t like it when people just use Word’s Track Changes function. It becomes messy very quickly. Make sure that you highlight all of the changes, even if it is just a corrected typo.
Here is an example of a response to reviewers document:
6. Double-check everything
At this stage, it helps to take a bit of a break. Don’t rush to submit your response. Often you’ll have to send your submission to your co-authors for their comments anyway. After the break, go over your revision with fresh eyes. In the first round, check that you really addressed the reviewers’ comments. In the second round, check for typos, grammar, and correct referencing. I find that it’s easier to spot mistakes on a paper copy of the document. Once you’re satisfied, upload the revision to the journal submission system. Check the PDF produced by the system. Did you upload the correct files? Is the order of the files sensible? Are the references still in there? Did you update the figures? If everything looks ok, you can hit the SUBMIT button.
Congratulations, you finished your revision. Now do something you enjoy. You deserve it!