Release Date: September 24, 2013
Category: Manuscript Writing
Author: Rita N., Ph.D.
The majority of scientific and biomedical journals require that manuscripts be reviewed by at least two peer reviewers prior to acceptance or rejection. The outcome of this review process is most often “Resubmit with major revisions” or “Reject”, although a smaller fraction of manuscripts may be accepted without revision or pending minor changes. Sorting through these peer-review comments can often be a daunting task.
A research manuscript usually represents the culmination of years of hard work. Receiving a lengthy list of revisions or a rejection letter can be very discouraging. It is important to remember that the majority of (if not all) high-impact manuscripts go through a very similar process. Take a moment (or a day or two) to digest the decision, and allow your initial emotions to settle down before tackling the next step. Be objective as you revise your manuscript. Reviewers are usually selected because they are knowledgeable in the specific scientific area addressed in the manuscript. Use their criticisms to your advantage as an opportunity to further strengthen your study.
Separate the comments into two lists. One list will contain those comments that can be fully addressed by additional discussion or literature citations. The other contains a list of reviewer comments that require additional experimentation. Never omit a comment; it is important to fully address each and every comment. Once you have the comments separated into lists, think about how long each task will take you and/or your lab members to complete. Plan to begin lengthy revisions immediately. If you anticipate that the revisions will take longer than the deadline requested by the editor, communicate with the editor and request an extension. Assign tasks to the appropriate lab members, and emphasize the expected timeline for completion. If the revisions require additional work from collaborators or core facilities, communicate with those individuals to ensure that you schedule the required experiments to be completed as soon as possible. Revision of text, additional discussion, or additional literature citations can similarly be prioritized based on those revisions that will take longer to complete.
Make the jobs of the editor and reviewers easy. Write a clear, organized, easy-to-read response letter. Copy and paste the reviewer comments verbatim into a Microsoft Word document. Separate each reviewer’s comments, and number each comment consecutively beneath the corresponding reviewer. Enter your response in a different-colored font or in bold-type font beneath each comment. This document will become your response letter to the editor. Address each concern fully; do not “pick and choose” comments. Quite often, editors and reviewers will focus almost exclusively on the areas of perceived weakness to ensure that those areas were revised in the resubmission. Thus, if you thoroughly address those areas in the response letter, and state explicitly where the revisions can be found in the text, you have made the jobs of the editor and reviewer simple. They are more likely to view the resubmission favorably if you provide them with an organized account of what has been revised. In addition, remember to use polite language that shows appreciation for the time and expert feedback that the editor and reviewers have provided.
An example is shown below. [Note the organized structure, the different-colored font of the author’s response versus reviewer’s comment, objective and polite language, and scientific support addressing the requested revision.]
1. Statistical analysis was not shown for the experiment in Figure 1, making it impossible to comment on the relevance of the findings.
Response: We thank the reviewer for this insightful comment. We have now performed a student’s t-test to determine the significance of differences between the experimental and control groups. Our analysis shows that the p-value is less than 0.05, indicating statistical significance. This information has been added to the figure and is also discussed in the Results section (pg. 12, paragraph 2, line 4).
Most journals state a deadline or time span during which revisions must be returned. Pay attention to this deadline, and plan your revisions accordingly. If other authors or collaborators need to review the revised manuscript prior to submission, remember to send the revised manuscript to them ahead of the due date to allow them sufficient time to send comments back to you. It is important to submit revised manuscripts on time. If you anticipate that the revisions will take longer, or if you have unanticipated problems that delay your revisions, communicate immediately with the editor. Politely ask if an extension is possible. Many editors will allow a one-time extension.
Be polite, objective, and scientific when addressing areas of disagreement. Do not argue with the reviewer. Scientific support, such as additional data or literature citations, will strengthen your viewpoint. A difference in opinion can also be due to a misunderstanding. If you feel that the reviewer misunderstood your data or statements in the text, apologize, and re-phrase the text to make it clearer in the response letter and within the manuscript. Sometimes suggested revisions may be so extensive that they completely redirect the focus of the article. If this is the case, you may add a statement to your response letter, such as the following. “Thank you for this valuable comment. Although this issue is outside the scope of the current study, I fully agree that it is important for us to investigate this in a follow-up study. We have discussed the significance of this point in the Discussion section on page…”
After receiving a rejection letter, many authors send the identical (unrevised) manuscript to another journal. However, keep in mind that reviewers were selected because they are viewed as experts in that specific scientific field. Thus, it is likely that other experts (i.e., the new reviewers) will have concerns similar to those of the first set of reviewers. In addition, it is possible that the same reviewer will receive your manuscript again. The best strategy is to read the comments thoroughly. Although you may not be able to resubmit to the same journal, make every attempt to alleviate the concerns that you can address. This will strengthen your study. The only drawback is the time delay in revising and then submitting to a new journal. However, the delay will be greater if you receive another rejection letter based on the same concerns. Taking time to address the major concerns and revise your manuscript will increase the likelihood of acceptance. Occasionally, an author may feel that the Editor or reviewers misunderstood the data, or that the reviewer was biased. If you decide to appeal a decision to the Editor, make sure that you have clear justification. You must clearly articulate your concerns. Appeals are usually not successful. Editors will require strong evidence to support resubmission and/or a new round of reviews after an initial decision to reject.
The responses to reviewers list that you have created will serve as the body of your letter to the Editor. Add an introductory paragraph, thanking the Editor and reviewers for their time and thoughtful comments regarding your submission. Summarize the changes that you have made. Some journals require that revisions be indicated in the text in a specific manner (e.g., track changes or in brackets). Add a statement to the introductory paragraph indicating that you have followed this guideline. If significant changes were made, summarize those changes. For example, if figures from the original submission have now been omitted, or if new figures have been added, make a statement that the figures have been revised to address the reviewers’ concerns.
“We have fully addressed each concern and hope that this revised manuscript is now acceptable. Each concern is discussed in detail below. Revisions are indicated within the text using track changes, as requested in the journal’s guidelines. Please note that significant changes were made to Figures 1-3, and that the original Figure 4 has been deleted and replaced with a new figure. These revisions were performed to address the reviewers’ concerns. Thank you for allowing us to resubmit our manuscript for your consideration.”
In general, a reviewer’s mission is to strengthen the science behind a study. A resubmission should integrate the requested revisions without diffusing the focus of the study. Being organized as you perform the requested revisions, and providing an organized response letter to the editor and reviewers are important components of a successful resubmission.
If you like our articles, try our workshops! Our articles are based on the material from our scientific writing workshops, which cover these and many other topics more thoroughly, with more examples and discussion.
We offer on-site workshops for your event or organization, and also host workshops that individual participants can attend. Our on-site scientific writing workshops can range from 1-2 hours to several days in length. We can tailor the length to suit your needs, and we can deliver a writing workshop as a stand-alone activity or as part of scheduled meetings.
Our scientific writing workshops consistently receive high praise from participants including graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in diverse fields. Please see our scientific writing workshop page for details.
If you found this article helpful or if there is a topic you want us to address in a future article, please use our online comment submission form, or contact us directly. Your comments and suggestions are valuable! Click here to return to our scientific editing article library.