Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Dealing with reviewers' comments on submitted manuscripts

Addressing reviewers' comments is a milestone in the publication process. This post follows from a recent training event at which we discussed the role of reviewers in journal publishing with PhD students who had not yet published their research in a journal. Here, I introduce the role of reviewers in the publishing process, and share some of the lessons from the questions posed by PhD students about how to address the comments from journal reviewers. 
Academic journals are in need of a steady stream of submitted manuscripts, and while they have an easy way of dealing with an excess of submissions (rejection), they cannot cope with a shortage. This is one of the realities of journal publishing - journals need manuscripts.

When a journal editor receives a manuscript, they eventually send it to a number of reviewers. Usually, it goes to two, but the number varies. How are these reviewers selected? This is not so clear. However, very often, at least one of the referees will be the author of a frequently cited or otherwise important paper that is cited in your manuscript. Other methods for choosing reviewers include the use of personal acquaintances of the editor, use of authors of papers on the same topic that have been previously published in the journal, and I know that editors occasionally use Google...

Once the manuscript is sent to the reviewer, they are requested to return their review within a given time (often about 6 weeks, but it depends on the journal). We recently had a workshop for doctoral researchers on how to deal with reviewers' comments. Here are the some of the main questions, and my effort to answer them.

What criteria are used by reviewers to assses the manuscripts that they receive?
These vary somewhat from journal to journal, and discipline to discipline. It is likely that your supervisor will occasionally review for the main journals in your field, and this may give you the opportunity to ask to see the assessment criteria that the journal provides to its reviewers (if they are not available online).
Oxford journals provide a generic set of guidelines for reviewers that clearly demonstrate how the journal wants its reviewers to assess manuscripts.
The journal Nature provides a fairly comprehensive outline of the peer-review process. Although most of us will not submit to Nature, its assessment criteria are, in principle, not that different to those used in most scientific journals.
See a Sample Review Sheet from TRESS & TRESS GbR, which is representative of many journal review sheets that I have seen.

Is it OK to disagree with the reviewers?  How do you handle a disagreement with the reviewer? 
Yes. . . but be sure to do so in a diplomatic fashion, and be certain that you can make an evidence-based and persuasive justification for disagreeing. (This will be the subject of a forthcoming post.) See also the Online Resources below and especially How to reply to peer review comments when submitting papers for publication by Hywel Williams.
Update:See  Cooperation not confrontation - how to convince referees and respond to reviews.  

What does major revision mean?
The interpretation of 'major revision' seems to vary enormously. For me, 'major revision' certainly occurs anytime you are asked to conduct new experiments, conduct statistical analyses, or present new Tables and Figures. However, there are plenty of other demanding and time-consuming changes, so this is not definitive. What is probably more important is the amount of time involved, and the extent to which you have to modify your presentation and interpretation of theory or evidence. From the journal's perspective (and yours), an important consequence is that a final decision on acceptance of your manuscript is probably not made until you have addressed the major revisions (by either doing what is requested, or persuading the editor why you should not make some of the requested changes).

Why has an editor rejected my manuscript, yet strongly encouraged me to submit it again as a new submission after addressing the reviewers' comments? 
I was a bit perplexed by this when I first encountered it. My manuscript was rejected, despite quite minor revisions being requested (although these were described as 'major revision' in the communication from the editor). Then I realised the game that was being played. Among other metrics, journals pride themselves on various turnaround times for submissions - the time between receipt of the manuscript and acceptance, and the time from acceptance to publication etc. For a manuscript that is rejected and is then resubmitted, the turnaround time is from the time when the second version of the manuscript is resubmitted, thereby reducing the average turnaround time for manuscripts. However, acceptance by the journal is not guaranteed upon resubmission.

I submitted my manuscript to a journal and reluctantly added information to 'please' the reviewers in the hope of an acceptance.  The manuscript was ultimately rejected. When I submit the manuscript to another journal, should I keep all the changes requested by the previous reviewers?
This is a tricky question! It depends on the nature of the changes made to please the reviewers, and how unhappy you are with these changes.
Usually, the suggestions made by reviewers are well-intentioned, and you should give careful consideration to them, especially if the editor has also recommended these changes. However, on occasion, you will encounter comments from a reviewer that clearly misunderstand your work, clearly has a bias of some sort; or are downright unreasonable. Remember that when a reviewer or editor misunderstands your work, then this is the clearest signal that you need to change the delivery of your message. Otherwise, you are entitled to politely but clearly point out why you disagree with a particular request by a reviewer, and to justify your preferred approach.
That all said, sometimes you will end up with no choice but to either incorporate a requested change, or to withdraw your manuscript and resubmit to another journal. The latter is time-consuming and not an attractive option, and there is the possibility that the second journal will send the manuscript to the at least one of the original reviewers, who will probably repeat their original request! However, if you make a good argument about why those changes should not be made, the (new) editor may agree with you this time.

How detailed should your comments be? 
(This will be the subject of a forthcoming post.) There is a variety of ways in which people address comments of the reviewers. In general, these involve a list that provides each of the reviewers' comments, and follows them with a few sentences to explain and justify how they have been addressed, and (for more important changes) refer to the page and line numbers where the change has been implemented. I have seen authors employ different colours to distinguish between the comments and their replies. Some authors provide the extracts with the changes, but this can be very cumbersome and is generally unnecessary.  Some of the examples in the Online Resources include sample responses to reviewers. In addition, your supervisor should be able to provide you (confidentially) with some examples of their responses to reviewers of their publications. Your supervisor will probably never think of making such an offer, but should be agreeable if you ask.

When you send a response to the journal, who are you communicating with - the editor or the reviewers?
When you address the reviewers' comments and return your cover letter and revised manuscript to the journal, you are communicating directly with the editor. However, if you disagree with some of the reviewers' points, then it is very possible that the editor will use some or possibly all of your text in their communication with the reviewers. The best advice is to write to the editor as if you expect the reviewers to see it also. This will also help you to maintain the appropriate level of diplomacy and evidence-based argument.

How should I handle requests for inclusion of specific references?
This is easy - if this is one of the few obstacles between you and publication, just put them in. Some reviewers may suggest one or two of their own research papers, which may be because they sincerely believe that you have overlooked an important point, and/or they want to boost their citation count. On other occasions, the editor may request that you include additional references from their journal, which helps boost the journal's profile and impact factor.

What to do when reviewers make conflicting suggestions?
This happens quite frequently. On occasion, it can be quite useful! Again, consider which of the suggestions are most appropriate to your work (not necessarily the easiest to implement), and justify your choice to the editor.

PhDSkill: Practice the art of diplomacy when replying to reviewers. Make evidence-based arguments to justify why you disagree with a reviewer - but pick your battles wisely. Your supervisor should provide guidance to help you negotiate this important phase of publication.

Online resources
Update: Cooperation not confrontation - how to convince referees and respond to reviews. Richard Threlfall.

Update: Peer review: the nuts and bolts. A great introduction to the peer review process, and targetted at early career researchers.

Hywel Williams. How to reply to peer review comments when submitting papers for publication. This is a must-read (and short) article! Hywel emphasises three rules: Answer completely. Answer politely. Answer with evidence.

Revising your paper and responding to reviewer comments. This short webpage includes an example of how to respond to a reviewers' comments - first when you agree with the reviewer and second, when you  disagree. This is an easy-to-read introduction to publishing and related issues that is provided by Springer's Journal Author Academy. This includes common reasons for rejection.

Here is a Sample Review that provides a useful example of the tone and content that one should expect from a journal. This specific example is from biochemistry, but it addresses common themes in the assessment of manuscripts by reviewers.

Good review: "Much has been said about alternatives and enhancements to 'single-blind' peer review; but what actually constitutes a good referee report?" Nature Cell Biology 10, 371 (2008) This is a useful article that gives an insight into peer review, but also into the expectations of the reviewers when they assess manuscripts.

Many thanks to the postgraduate students at Teagasc, Johnstown Castle for their contribution of questions and discussion at our workshop on this topic.

photo credit: Mr. T in DC via photopin cc


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